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Snowbasin, Utah Feb. 9, 2002 (AP by Bob Baum)–Beneath a spectacular clear sky, her pigtail wrapped in red, white and blue, Picabo Street raced down the mountain faster than any of her competitors on Saturday.
Sure, it was only the first training run in the women’s downhill, but she and the rest of the U.S. team gave notice that they are primed for this long-awaited Olympic Games on a course they know so well.
“I think you can bet on the Americans,” Street said. “I really do. … We are very comfortable here.”
Skiing out of the 30th position, a number that matches her age, Street was timed in one minute, 42.16 seconds. Her U.S. teammate, Caroline Lalive, was second, 41-hundredths of a second behind. In all, four Americans were in the top 10.
The first training run for Monday’s race was postponed by high winds on Friday. So Saturday’s postcard weather on Mount Ogden served as a backdrop to the first dress rehearsal of the moment that lured Street back from a horrific accident that left her with a broken left leg and mangled right knee.
The crash at the World Cup finals in Crans Montana, Switzerland, came just a month after she won the gold medal in the super giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Games. Four years earlier, she won the silver in the downhill at Lillehammer.
The chance to ski at a third Olympics, about an hour’s drive from her Park City home, motivated her through two years of rehabilitation.
Jonna Mendes of the United States was sixth Saturday. American Kirsten Clark tied for ninth, although she stood up from her racing crouch far from the finish and coasted to the end.
Gold medal favorites Isolde Kostner of Italy and Hilde Gerg of Germany were seventh and 21st, respectively.
Many of the top contenders took it easy on the lower part of the Wildflower course, while Street stayed in her crouch almost to the finish. “Did I want to make a statement? I don’t know. Not really,” she said. “All I wanted to do was execute my plan of attack, ski the line the coaches set out for us to ski, and really tactically ski well.”
Street won a NorAm race, her only post-injury victory, on the same course last year, a layout well-suited to her skills.
The men’s and women’s downhill races finish at the same place, but the resemblance ends there. While the men’s Grizzly course is full of twists, turns and jumps with no place for a skier to catch his breath, the women’s course starts with a long straight stretch before the skier faces any technical challenges.
“It’s such a fun downhill, you know,” Street said. “It kind of starts slow off the top and it’s really mellow. It gives you a chance to relax into it and just get into the mode of downhill.”
She spent much of Saturday trying to calm down from her big role in Friday night’s opening ceremony.
Street and Cami Granato, captain of the 1998 gold medal-winning U.S. hockey team, carried the torch up the steps toward the Olympic cauldron, and handed it to Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team.
“I keep catching myself daydreaming and going up with Camie on the steps again and seeing the stadium from up on the platform,” she said, “and I’m going `OK, wait, wait, concentrate! You have a downhill to run.”’
As she shoved off down the mountain Saturday, she said her nerves were fine.
“I’m really relaxed, surprisingly,” she said. “I felt like I’d be a lot more uptight and a lot more nervous.”
While Street warned that the Americans were ready, Mendes and Lalive, both just 22, didn’t want to make too much of their performances.
“It’s a good steppingstone to get on the podium,” Mendes said, “but it really doesn’t mean a whole lot come race day.”
Lalive said the U.S. showing bolstered the team’s confidence, “but we have to keep the ball rolling. This is not race day.”
Copyright © 2000 Thee Associated Press