Lake Louise, Alberta Dec. 7, 2001 (AP by Boob Baum)--On Friday the 13th in March 1998, Picabo Street lay in the snow in unimaginable pain, her left leg broken above the knee and ligaments in her right knee mangled.
One month after her greatest triumph--an Olympic gold medal in the super G--the indomitable, irrepressible skier seemed finished in the sport.
Last week--three years, eight months and 17 days after that horrific crash in Crans Montana, Switzerland--Street stood at the bottom of the downhill course at Lake Louise with the lead in a World Cup race.
``It reminded me of old times,'' she said.
Her lead didn't hold up. She finished fifth a day after earning sixth in the season-opening World Cup downhill.
Far from satisfied, Street stormed off the hill because she knew that a mistake at the top of the course had cost her the victory.
At 30, Street is back with a competitive spirit and mended legs she hopes will lead to one final hurrah--a gold medal at the Feb. 8-24 Salt Lake City Olympics. This is the last and toughest in a string of comebacks for the ever-talkative, effervescent champion.
She is the only American skier who transcends the sport. With her cute name, sparkling smile and charged personality, she does commercials for Nike, Charles Schwab, Chap-Stick and Kelloggs.
Street recovered from her first knee injury in 1989 to win a silver medal in the downhill at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
She dominated the World Cup downhill with 11 victories in 1995 and 1996. Then came a devastating crash in Vail, Colo., on Dec. 6, 1996, and another arduous rehabilitation
The target for that comeback was the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
A month before the games began, she crashed and got a concussion. Shaken and bothered by numbing headaches, Street made it to Japan, and stunned the field with a gold in the super G.
She thought about sitting out the rest of the ski season, but returned to Europe, where the crash in the World Cup finals left her depressed and on the brink of calling it quits.
``Everybody that knows Picabo knows that she's capable of anything,'' U.S. women's coach Marjan Cernigoj said. ``I was hoping that she could come back because she represents such a large part of our team. She brings a lot in experience, results, character, leadership--all those things you can think of.''
Two days after Christmas 1999, Street got back got on skis, a metal plate still in her left leg.
``I skied for that whole season, just free skiing,'' she said. ``There were moments that I would have on the hill when I would think, `OK, you know I'm not going to be able to make it back.' Then I would go fast. I would shoot a gully or pop some air off a cat road or something and I'd be like, `Oh, wow! That feels like the old me.'''
She joined the U.S. team at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., for the start of training in May 2000. While she was gone, there had been a revolution in ski technology and the skiing style that went with it.
``Everybody kind of giggled at me for the first week,'' she said. ``The coaches looked at each other and thought, 'Whoa, she's got a long way to go. This could take awhile.'''
She made quick progress, though.
``It wasn't like I was some scrub before that didn't have the old technique down pat,'' she said. ``I had old-school thoughts that had worked for me and I knew I was fast.''
The breakthroughs came on her weakest days, when her knees were aching too much for her to fight the new ways of the sport.
``Here came this enlightenment once I gave up and stopped fighting it,'' she said.
``For me it was this big slap in the face,'' she said. '``OK, you're a control freak and you need to let go. You've got old-school stuff going on and you've got to get rid of it. You've got to let that go and focus in on the here and now.'''
Still, it was a tough year of setbacks mingled with moments of encouragement. All the while, she worked on her biography, ``Picabo, Nothing to Hide.''
``It was really hard because I was going back and drumming up my childhood and going over old stuff,'' she said. ``It was like, `This is not what I want to be thinking about right now.'''
A seventh-place finish in the downhill in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, got the attention of the ski world.
``Picabo had been out two years,'' Cernigoj said. ``At first she approached it a little bit defensive, but every day, every week, every month there was a little bit more confidence in her skiing and her approach.''
Street had moved from Portland, Ore., to a big house in Park City, Utah, in 1999 and became director of skiing for the Park City Mountain Resort.
The fact that the next Winter Olympics would be in her back yard added to her motivation.
``I may have shot for it anyway, but not with this much purpose, not with this much hope,'' she said.
Street always seemed like a teen-ager, but turning 30 didn't end up being so bad after all.
``I was really paranoid about it,'' she said. ``I was thinking, `Oh, my God. I'm going to be 30. I'm going to be old. Life is over. It's all downhill from here, right?' But to be honest with you, I woke up really happy.''
Then she spent the day in the operating room for yet another knee operation, albeit a minor cleanup procedure.
In her book, Street writes, ``I ski better when I'm not in love.''
That will be another obstacle for her to overcome in Salt Lake City.
She met John Mulligan at Mammoth Lakes as she began her comeback in 2000.
``I actually ran and hid because I pretty much fell in love with him the minute I saw him,'' Street said.
He was on the staff of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and she was an athlete, and the two aren't supposed to mix.
``Also, I thought, 'I'm going to drag through the mud here for a year, and I don't need to be dragging somebody else with me,''' she said. ``I should do this by myself.''
But they were soon a couple. A year to the day after they met, Mulligan _ now ski technician for slalom racer Kristina Koznick--proposed.
Street accepted, but no date has been set.
She repeatedly has said she wants to carry the American flag at the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City. But what if someone else is selected?
``I'm just going to have to make a bang in the downhill and the super G to try to overcompensate for it,'' she said. ``And I won't throw a temper tantrum. I promise.''
No matter what happens, Street said this season will mark an end to a career that began when she was 7 and got on a pair of skis, terrified she'd fall off the lift in Sun Valley, Idaho. Moments later, she was spotted by her mother barreling down the slope.
``I'm not really sure what's going to happen to empower me,'' she said. ``I'm really not sure what's going to make me happy. I'm sure there are things that are going to, but I'm not sure how it's all going to turn out.''
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press