Alpine ski racer Picabo Street, who calls her sport a "dance with death" in her new autobiography, Picabo: Nothing to Hide, clearly has no illusions about the risks she faces every time she hurtles down a mountain at speeds of up to 140 km/h.
Two gruesome accidents on the World Cup circuit this season the death of French super-giant slalom champion Régine Cavagnoud after a practice-run collision and a crash that left 22-year-old Swiss racer Silvano Beltrametti a paraplegic have highlighted the dangers of ski racing and cast a somber pall over what these athletes refer to as the "white circus."
But Street, who has twice struggled back from career-threatening injuries of her own, knows from painful experience that when victory is determined by margins of hundredths of a second, fearlessness is essential. "You either hide from your fear or you replace it," she says. "Lately, I've been trying to replace it with skiing a line that keeps me busy the entire way down the course. It's like a car accident. It's only five, 10 minutes after you get to the finish that you start shaking, realizing what you just did."
When the image that best conveys the essence of her profession is a car crash, you understand the abundance of attitude that has made Street one of the dominant personalities in skiing for much of the past decade. The tart-tongued confidence that has both alienated fellow skiers and helped earn lucrative endorsements from the likes of Nike and Chap Stick was forged during her childhood in tiny Triumph, Idaho (pop. 50). Her hippie parents didn't even give her a name until she was three, when they asked what she thought of Picabo pronounced "peekaboo," like her favorite game a name her mother recalled from a road sign.
Now 30 and engaged to ski technician John Mulligan though she thinks she skis better "when I'm not in love" she will try in Salt Lake City to cap her career with a gold in the downhill, her signature event. After failing to finish in the top 30 at last week's World Cup race in Cortina, Italy, she won't have the chance to duplicate her surprise gold medal performance in the super-G at the '98 Nagano Games.
It's her last competition before retirement and she's anticipating a home-field advantage at what she predicts will be the "biggest display of patriotism of any Olympics." Age and love may have mellowed her, but she still has plenty of edge, both on and off the slopes. "Some of the European skiers are already shooting for second place," she says, "because they know that's as good as they're going to do, there's going to be an American in front of them taking the gold." Right. And shaking, like after a car crash.
TIME: Is there a need for changes in ski racing?
STREET: Definitely. When you?re screaming down the mountain and 1/100th of a second is what separates the first, second and third person, everybody?s a winner. We all need to look at it that way. Trying to keep things from one another and having secrets isn?t going to be what makes the difference of that 1/100th.
STREET: All the little secret stuff that goes on, like new skis, that you?d think would give you an edge. You keep that from your competitor. If I had my choice, we?d all be on the same equipment. Then let?s see who?s the best at the end of the day.
TIME: What will you do after you retire?
STREET: Being a ski racer has defined me for the last 15, 20 years of my life, and I?d like to find myself away from that. I want to go out and slide around like normal people who go skiing instead of having to make perfect carving turns the entire way down the mountain. But to be really honest, what I want to do when I get done skiing is just sit on my couch, watch some TV and catch up with what?s going on in America right now.
TIME: You say the Olympics will be a huge patriotic display. How are the Europeans reacting to that?
STREET: They?re always a bit envious of the Americans? ability to rise to the occasion. It?s because American fans go, "Come on, come on, you can do it," and the Europeans go, "You?d better." You get an Austrian skiing is No. 1 in their country and if they don?t bring a medal home, they?re going to be asked, "Why not?" Instead of, "Nice try, man, that was awesome." It?s just a different perspective. Their pressures are a lot different. I don?t envy them at all.