Picabo Street may pull off a miracle

Picabo Street came back, her way, for this day. She circled Feb. 11 on the calendar the way you would a kid's birthday. The Olympic women's downhill is today at Snowbasin and the miracle is not that after multiple surgeries, Street will be competing in the event.

The miracle is she might win it.

She spoke this week about going out like Michael Jordan, the second time, winning it all with a last shot and then walking away.

The thing is, Jordan never went through what Street has. His legs don't look like railroad tracks from all the surgeries. His left femur never snapped in Crans-Montana. Think MJ has ever been air-lifted to a hospital out of Switzerland?

Street needed to mend mentally and physically after her horrendous downhill crash in March of 1998.

Yet here she is, four years later, ready to rip one last run for Uncle Sam.

Last year, Street would scream tears even before finishing World Cup races. Part of it was fear, part of it was the back-of-the-pack finishes that made her wonder if she could ever remotely approach what she once was.

As it stands, it appears Street has worked her way back into medal contention--bronze, silver, who knows, maybe gold.

There is a lot of polish in Picabo now. Much of the brash brat in her has been scrubbed clean. She has been Nike-ized and comes complete with hands-on handlers.

Her time is micro-managed.

Street's strong personality and young-won fame has not always endeared her to teammates, or coaches, yet there is no getting around the enormity of what she has done and, perhaps, is about to do.

After Street took Saturday's first Olympic training run, former U.S. ski team racer Carrie Sheinberg, working here as a journalist, looked up from the coral at the base of the downhill and spoke words she never thought she would say.

"I think she's going to win," Sheinberg said of Picabo. "Unbelievable. I think she's going to win."

Street hasn't been a major player on the ski circuit since she dominated the World Cup downhill in the mid-1990s. Yet she has this way, like Reggie Jackson, of producing in the clutch.

"She's a competitor is what she is," U.S. slalom star Bode Miller said of Street. "She's got the American mentality in a nutshell, something everybody can relate to. She's a lot of fun to watch. That's why she's so good in the big games."

Street did it at Lillehammer in 1994, when she won a silver medal in downhill.

She did four years later at Nagano, stealing the gold in super-giant slalom.

You sense another round of karma coming.

Six months ago, Ron Street, Picabo's dad, cracked open a fortune cookie after eating Chinese and the fortune said: Someone you know will make you very proud.

Ron stashed the note in his wallet.

The Wildflower downhill course, naturally, sets up perfectly for Picabo. The top section is flat, a glider's paradise, and Street can carry speed downhill like no other. She may be able to build enough of a time cushion to hold off the others in the remainder of the course.

The difference between now and Nagano is that Street is not going it alone. She was the lone American alpine medal winner in Japan, but enters today's race encircled by teammates who have grown up around her.

Kirsten Clark, who won a World Cup downhill last year, may be more of a threat to Street than the Europeans. Caroline LaLive, a pup of 18 in Nagano, has matured into a talented all-event skier and a potential star.

The rest of the faces surrounding Street are familiar ones. No hot-shot racer, no young Picabos, have risen in her absence.

The international medal threats today--Isolde Kostner of Italy, Renate Goetschl and Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria, Germany's Hilde Gerg--are all racers Street has known, befriended and defeated.

Kostner, the World Cup downhill leader, took the bronze behind Picabo's silver at Lillehammer. In Nagano, Street clipped Dorfmeister for the super-G gold by one-hundredth of a second.

The U.S. women's team as a group seems at ease, on and off the course. They are rooming together in a home near Snowbasin that comes equipped with a backyard swing.

"The Americans are very comfortable here," Street said. "We know the course well."

Not many would argue.

"They know the course much, much better than the other girls," Italy's Kostner conceded.

This will almost certainly be Street's last competitive race.

"I know my body can carry me for that but I don't now if my heart and my mind can carry me for that," she said this week. "I'm really tired of living out of a bag, and missing my god-daughter and my nephew grow up. My dogs are getting old and my parents are getting old and I'm tired of missing it."

So today, Street will streak down the face of Wildflower and try to make magic one more time.

One last time.

"I feel more support than pressure, I really do," she said. "It's a hometown crowd and everyone's cheering for me. And it's not like, 'oh, you better', it's like 'come on, you can, I hope you do.' To me, that's way better."

What better way to go out?

As Picabo said, "It's all downhill from here."