The bond between Lindsey Vonn and Picabo Street
Picabo Street has posed for thousands of photographs with fans. Probably tens of thousands.
But one in particular stood out to the two-time Olympic Alpine ski medalist.
Street was making an appearance in 1995 at Pierce Skate & Ski outside Minneapolis when she locked eyes with Lindsey Vonn, then 10 and known as Lindsey Kildow.
Vonn, wearing an oversized white crewneck sweatshirt, was taller than the other star-struck children. Street distinctly remembers Vonn slouching with her right palm resting over her left elbow, with one leg extended far in front of the other to reduce her height a couple of inches.
Street said Vonn’s unwavering eye contact made her unforgettable. Vonn never took her green eyes off Street, despite being in the middle of a crowd of excited children jostling for position in line.
“She stayed focused on the task at hand, which was to meet me and remember me and take something away from it that she could use,” Street said. “I said to myself, ‘I better get ready for her because she is coming with it, and I will need to bring my A-game too.’”
Street was stunned watching a 15-year-old Vonn ski for the first time in 1999.
She marveled at Vonn’s knack for following the fall line, the most direct route down a ski slope.
“The faster she went, the bigger the smile she got on her face,” Street said. “You can’t teach somebody to love the fall line like that little girl loved the fall line.”
Rendered speechless, Street barely said anything when she crossed paths with Vonn at the bottom of the hill.
“I had never seen anybody ski as well as she could at that age,” Street said. “I knew the sky was the limit for her.”
Sure enough, Street and Vonn both made the 2002 U.S. Olympic team. Street, 30, was the team’s oldest member, while Vonn, 17, was the youngest.
Street noticed that Vonn seemed nervous the night before her Olympic debut, with bright eyes reminiscent of their first interaction. Street encouraged Vonn to stand tall, be proud and smile.
Street then presented Vonn with a hair wrap to wear over her blonde ponytail.
“It really made me feel faster,” Vonn said. “I think that it worked.”
Vonn placed sixth in combined, the best result for any U.S. woman in Alpine skiing at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
“She handled it spectacularly,” Street said, pointing out that Vonn experienced increased pressure competing on U.S. soil. “It does not get more intense than that, and she stepped right up.”
It started a tradition of mentorship between Street and Vonn at the Winter Olympics.
Vonn crashed during a downhill training run at the 2006 Torino Olympics and was airlifted by helicopter off the mountain. Street brought pasta to Vonn’s hospital room and they both cried, fearing that Vonn’s back was broken. To ease the tension, Street told stories about overcoming her own injury setbacks.
Just two days after the crash, Vonn, then 21, returned to competition and finished eighth in the downhill.
“She was frustrated there because she came [to Torino] ready to rock and roll,” Street said, “but she was competing at 50 or 60 percent.”
Vonn arrived at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with immense expectations. She had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic preview issue with the headline “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever.”
Vonn, then 25, claimed both gold in downhill and bronze in super-G in Vancouver, despite having a bruised right shin that caused “excruciating” pain when putting on a ski boot.
“I told her to make sure that her expectations exceeded the expectations of her fans,” Street remembered. “She did a good job isolating the pressure on herself and doing what she needed to do to get the job done.”
Four years later, knee injuries forced Vonn to miss the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“The hardest part was being at the prime of her career and knowing she would have walked away with multiple medals,” Street said. “I cannot even fathom that emotional state.”
Both declined to reveal what Street told Vonn leading up to the 2014 Games, but Street wishes she could take it back.
“I actually botched that one,” Street said. “I still don’t know what I should have said.”
Street did not hesitate when asked about Vonn’s place in Alpine ski racing history entering the 2018 Winter Games.
“Lindsey is by far the greatest Alpine skier ever,” Street said.
Vonn broke the women’s record for most World Cup wins in January 2015. She is closing in on the overall record for career World Cup wins, which is held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.
Street believes Vonn will break Stenmark’s record, but says “I just pray that her body holds out for that.”
Watching Vonn today, Street marvels at Vonn’s ability to have fun during competitions. She also admires Vonn’s use of social media to send a positive message about body image, as well as her confidence in speaking German in interviews.
But most of all, Street respects Vonn’s ability to overcome obstacles. Street thought of Vonn when she heard Anna Kendrick sing “Get Back Up Again” in the movie “Trolls.”
“No matter how many times she has a new injury or something going on,” Street said, “she finds a way to climb back on and keep riding.”
Vonn tries to emulate Street, who runs the Street of Dreams Foundation, both on and off the slopes. She started the Lindsey Vonn Foundation to support girls through scholarships, education and athletics.
“I want to give the girls of the next generation someone to look up to,” Vonn said, “just like I looked up to Picabo Street.”
Vonn still has the childhood photo with Street hanging in her bedroom. She thinks about that moment when she interacts with her own fans.
“I understand how much you can impact someone just by meeting them,” Vonn said. “A short period of time can make a lifelong difference.”
Street, 46 and the mother of three sons, is now the President of the Picabo Street Academy, which provides students with a virtual curriculum to allow them the flexibility to continue pursuing their athletic or artistic passions.
She takes great pride in the role she has played in Vonn’s career.
“All I did was blow a little air on that fire that was already burning very brightly and powerfully,” Street said. “To watch what she’s done has been awe inspiring, to say the least.”
Street got emotional when she saw Vonn post a photo of the two of them on Instagram for 2017 International Women’s Day.
“It’s obviously very special to make a positive impact on someone’s life at that age and then watch it perpetuate over so much time,” Street said. “I guess that the words to describe it would be ‘a dream come true.’”