Picabo Street Finishes 16th. And First

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Picabo Street rests at the finish of the women's downhill final

Was this a member of 'N Sync, early in town for the group's Olympic gig next Saturday? The scene had all the requisite elements of a boy band's arrival: fans professing their undying love; a crush of journalists recording the star's every move; desperate autograph seekers (with minders restraining the most persistent of them); and a police escort to help the hero escape the crush.

But no, Justin Timberlake is still more than a week away. Tuesday's paparazzi-style performance was for Picabo Street, the American skier who took 16th place in the women?s downhill skiing event.

That's right, 16th.

The gold medallist, Frenchwoman Carole Montillet, was all but ignored by the American media, despite having the ride of her life down Snow Basin's Wildflower course. Montillet's victory was a great story — before claiming Olympic gold, the 28-year-old had never won a world-class downhill race in her life. She thrashed the competition by 45 hundredths of a second, an eternity in Alpine skiing.

But the cameras, save for those operated by Europeans, were trained firmly on Street and her all-American appeal. Bronze medal winner Renate Goetschl, of Austria, said she wasn't at all surprised by the attention given to a skier who finished 1.61 seconds off gold medal pace. "It was her last Olympic Games and her last race, and she is one of the big favorites here," she said. "Everybody wants to help her and to cheer for her."

Street showed why she was such an icon as soon as she finished her run. She was accommodating, and enthusiastic, and tried to please everybody. The U.S. has produced plenty of wonderful women's skiers and athletes, but few of them want to spend hours giving interviews and spending time in the bleachers. It is also unlikely that anyone relishes the attention more, and copes with it quite as well, as the Super G gold medallist from Nagano.

"Today is the best day of my ski racing career," Street told the 22,000 people who came to see Tuesday's event. "And it's all because of you." Street's easy demeanor has brought her legions of fans and some $1.5 million in endorsements, according to Forbes Magazine. She seems sublimely comfortable with TV cameras and photographers' long-range lenses recording every poignant moment with her family and friends, moments most people would like to keep private.

Julie Webster, 13, of nearby Morgan, Utah, shadowed her hero for at least an hour in search of an autograph. "Please, Picabo, please, I love you," she called out in a high-pitched voice. "Please, Picabo, will you sign this for me?" Asked why she was risking trouble from her parents by sticking around so long after the event was over, Julie said: "She's so brave, and she's just so cool. She does things I don't think anyone else would do. She goes down these enormous steep hills."

The fact that 34 other women also dared to go down those enormous steep hills — 15 of them faster than Street — appeared lost on Julie. Street, however, acknowledged Montillet's achievement as a "wonderful day for Carole, a great day for France." Even though the downhill was her final competitive race before retirement, Street said she wasn't at all disappointed in her 16th placing. "In my eyes and in my heart, qualifying for the Olympics felt like winning a gold medal," she said. And the country acted as though she had.