Street's long and golden road Super-G win better than she dreamed
NAGANO, Japan - Last year Picabo Street skied down the Happo'one Olympics course to get an idea what she would face in the 1998 Winter Olympics. That wasn't as easy as it sounds. She rode down on the back of her coach, Andreas Rickenbach. After all, she had a cast on her left leg. "We stopped at strategic points and checked them out so I would be able to visualize it," Street said. Street's scouting mission, though, didn't include what turned out to be the most strategic point of all - the place where the podium would be for medal awards. And she didn't stop in Central Square in downtown Nagano either, another strategic point. But Street was in both places yesterday. She was awarded the gold medal in the women's super-G and then later cheered by thousands of people who came to Central Square to witness the nightly victory celebrations for medal winners. She may not have visualized those scenes, but like all Olympic athletes, Street often thought of what it would be like to win a gold medal. "It's far better than I even dreamed," she said. Street, 26, a two-time World Cup champion and a silver medalist at the 1994 Lillehammer Games in the downhill, shocked the skiing world with her victory Tuesday after missing an entire season recovering from a serious knee injury. She won an event - the super giant slalom - that isn't even her speciality just two weeks after suffering a mild concussion in a crash while skiing in Sweden. She still had headaches from that accident as recently as the day before the super-G. But Street was thinking clearly yesterday. "I told my mom on the phone today that I had a very special feeling," she said. It was a special night in Nagano for the American team, celebrating its first two gold medals of the Games. About a half hour before Street won her race - by just one one-hundredth of a second over silver medalist Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria - Jonny Moseley captured the first gold medal for the United States in freestyle moguls. "I beat Picabo," Moseley said jokingly after his victory celebration. "I smoked her." He may have been first on the medals stand for the U.S., but the day belonged to Street. She danced to the beat of the cheers of the crowd on the stage under the cold night sky. Her medal was placed around her neck by skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy, who kissed Street on both cheeks as the crowd roared. As a band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," Street belted it out loudly, with tears filling her eyes. She had actually practiced singing it this summer, preparing for this moment. "My mom helped me," she said. "She played the piano. We perfected it. I even learned how to sing it on key." Practicing the national anthem to prepare for a gold medal ceremony is a cute display of confidence. But skiing down a mountain on someone's back with a cast on your leg, recovering from what could have been a career-ending knee injury, and thinking about competing in the Winter Olympics amounts to either foolish thinking or unwavering determination. Street is the very definition of the latter. "She's been feisty ever since her first breath," said her father, Ron "Stubby" Street, a self-described 1960s hippie who claims his daughter was conceived at the top of a 9,000-foot mountain. "Any time she is challenged, anything can happen." Street had a huge challenge after December 1996, when she tore ligaments in her left knee in a crash, missing the entire season. It took her 12 months to recover and rehabilitate, and she didn't compete again until December, in a World Cup race in Val D'Isere, France. She finished 10th in the downhill, an impressive performance for her first time back in racing. "I knew I could trust myself physically," she said. "I knew mentally I had the confidence. But I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how fast I was going to go." The next day, Street entered the super-G and finished 11th. It was her third best finish ever in that event. Katja Seizinger of Germany won that race. Seizinger won six straight World Cup races, tying a record set by Killy. She was the favorite to win the women's super-G here but instead finished sixth. In France, Street gave Seizinger her due - and also a warning. "I'm happy for her," Street said. "She is an amazing skier. But the day will come again when we're fighting for the top spot on the podium,". She won that fight Tuesday by a knockout. Round 2 comes Saturday night in the downhill race - the event in which Street medaled four years ago and plans to win. "I told my mom that I won the gold medal today, and I'm going to bring another one home to you later this week," Street said. Why not? A woman named Picabo who was conceived on a mountaintop gets a little leeway in the prediction department. She looked up at the full moon in the Nagano sky as she left the victory ceremonies and said, "This was my destiny. This was meant to be."