February 8, 2002

Why we should root for skier Picabo Street

If anyone has noticed, the Winter Olympics start tonight in Salt Lake City, Utah. These games feature bobsleds shooting through tracks at deadly speeds, athletes competing in a combination of cross-country skiing and gun-shooting, figure skaters artistically gliding across the ice, and skiers shooting down the slopes at speeds of seventy-miles-per-hour.

My favorite Winter Olympic sport is by far the downhill skiing competition. In a bobsled, there is little applicability to the outside world: you don't tend to go bobsleding with friends too often. With figure skating, most of the competitors seem to be younger than me. Plus, I have this fear that if I did start to like it, I might be attacked by a club-wielding man bent on realigning my knees (I am referring to the 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by the hired hand of one of her competitors, Tonya Harding.). Finally, I don't think that anything with guns should be a sport. But downhill skiing — now there is a sport that appeals to the common man! And the downhill skier who I think everyone should root for? Picabo Street.

First of all, I want to take you through the sport of downhill, followed by a case for Picabo Street being an appropriate skier to root for.

The reason that I like downhill skiing so much is its appeal to the common man. Many people ski. Many people ski well. But few people can ski as well as the skiers in the Winter Olympics. This is the same reason that I like basketball. I used to be able to play basketball (hold that thought, it has significance later on in this piece), and I used to be good at basketball. Kobe Bryant plays basketball. Kobe Bryant is good at basketball. While I played basketball, I could imitate the moves that Kobe Bryant made, completing them in my driveway in a similar fashion, just without quite as much flair or skill. The gap between the common person who skis, and a skier — for kicks, say Picabo Street — is much less extensive. No matter how much I practice basketball, I know that some of the things that Kobe Bryant does, I will never be able to do. Firstly, this is true because he is a lot taller than me (unchangeable), but also because I spend a lot of time sitting on my ass writing columns like this twice a week. Skiers, though, do not have to be extraordinarily tall to be good skiers. It's a easy for the average person to conceive of training really hard and being able to mold themselves into a skiing god or goddess. The most amazing thing about Olympic skiers is perhaps their devotion to training, not their hereditary physical advantages.

Picabo Street is one of these amazing but imitable people. She's down to earth, average size, and she's funny. In a recent interview she turned her hands into a pair of binoculars to mimic the way that she's looking towards winning a medal in Salt Lake City. Plus, she's a native of Oregon which means that she's both not from the East Coast, a big positive in my bias towards East Coasters, and also that she's from my home state.

Another reason that I like Street is that she is coming back from a horrific training crash that left her skiing career in question. Shortly after winning gold in the last Winter Olympics, in Nagano, Street crashed, tearing ligaments in her knee, notably her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and breaking her femur. For most people, just being able to walk again from these three separate and very serious injuries would be a challenge. Eighteen months later, Street was back on the slopes. I had surgery to repair just a torn ACL at the end of June, 2001, and I still can't walk perfectly, let alone even think about getting on a pair of one-half-inch thick and five-foot long boards, flying down a mountain at break-neck, er, break-knee speeds! The adversity that this skier fought through just to get to these Winter Olympics is reason enough to root for her. Plus, she's funny, and she's American.

I don't think that the jury needs to deliberate at all on this one. Picabo Street is definitely a cool, inspirational athlete, in a fun, reachable sport, and everyone should and will root for her.

One last thing: every Olympic year during the broadcast of events, Bob Costas does a series of "fighting through adversity" pieces that takes up time during boring events. Some of these pieces are neat, and leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. However, with some of them, I think that Costas goes a little overboard. He really makes it seem like every bloody athlete in the Olympics has conquered some insurmountable obstacle to reach the game. Everyone has to fight adversity; it is a part of life, which makes me really annoyed after seeing too many of these pieces. If today's column struck you in that way, I apologize. It was not my intention to be cliché. I really think that the knee injuries of Street are truly inspiring, not like some of the garbage that Costas throws at viewers every year. That's it. Enjoy the Olympics, and root for Picabo Street.