When Lindsey Vonn was a young girl known as Lindsey Kildow, she stood in line for three hours at a ski shop in Minnesota hoping to meet her idol.
That was Lillehammer 1994 Olympic silver medallist and two-time World Cup overall champion Picabo Street. Street would go on to win Super-G gold at Nagano 1998, before retiring after Salt Lake City 2002 where she was a teammate of Vonn's.
Now, nearly 25 years after that first meeting, Vonn has retired after a glittering career that saw her win an Olympic gold (and two bronzes), two world titles, and 82 World Cup races — more than any other woman.
The Olympic Channel spoke exclusively to Street for her reflections on Vonn's career and what the future holds for a retired skier.
And Street says "we can't rule anything out" in relation to a possible emotional one-off comeback for Vonn at her favourite World Cup location Lake Louise next year.
REWIND: Picabo Street wins alpine Super-G gold in Nagano
REWIND: Picabo Street wins alpine Super-G gold in NaganoAmerican skier Picabo Street clinched the Nagano 1998 Super-G gold medal. Re-live her winning run here.
The interview has been edited for clarity, accuracy, and length.
Olympic Channel (OC): Lindsey calls you her mentor; her hero. Can you take us back to where it started?
Picabo Street (PS): She was nine years old and we were at a ski shop in Minnesota and I was there doing an autograph signing for a ski company, and I remember her very vividly that day. She was very attentive, I felt she had a passion not just for skiing, but for the spotlight. And she kept a very close eye on me throughout the day.
As she moved forward through the line, I saw the intensity in her increase. She stood out amongst the crowd for sure, not because she was tall, but because of the attention she paid to the whole environment, knowing that she was going to be in that same situation one day.
OC: Two years ago, Lindsey posted a photo on Instagram of her meeting you at that ski shop in Minnesota. When she was named one of the 'women leaders who are changing the world' by TIME Magazine last year, she said, "Picabo was always the person, she was this amazing talented ski racer. Meeting her was really the reason I wanted to become a ski racer.” How does it feel to know that you had that part to play in Lindsey Vonn’s career?
PS: It’s definitely humbling to think about it, it makes you realise how much of an impression you can make on a person’s life in just one meeting.
As I’ve gotten older and I have so many opportunities to make that difference in people’s lives, it’s a big responsibility and a big honour.
I think all I did was give Lindsey the confidence that what she already had in her heart and her tummy as a dream was a reality for her, and that she could start the process of making that a reality and not just a dream.
OC: Of course, you ended up on the same Olympic team in Salt Lake City.
That was great, it was kind of like two teammates passing in the hallway and giving a big high five. I was done and she was coming in and it was a great crossing and I think the thing I tried to do for her at that point was just let her know that I believed in her, that she needs to believe in herself, and to just go out and do it her way, her style and remember to smile, and she has definitely done that.
Injuries and comebacks
OC: Lindsey said in her press conference the other day that the thought of not skiing fast is quite depressing for her.
PS: Absolutely. I can imagine. When people ask me what do I miss about the sport, I don’t miss the travelling and the preparation and all the time in the gym, all the uncertainty. I miss the start to the finish. I miss that rush of running a downhill as fast as I can, having the biggest and best run on the mountain cleared for us with a nice big padded fence all the way down the outside, everybody’s out of the way and standing on the side watching, and we are able to just bomb and try and go faster, faster, faster.
She’s smart enough to know that there’s nothing out there that’s going to duplicate that sensation. Everything will pale in comparison and it will all become memories for her. But I’d like to ensure her that there are other things that she will experience in her life that will match it in a different way.
I kind of think of it as like ink cartridges on your computer printer. You’ve got the really colourful one and the black and white one. And all of those ink cartridges will get filled up for her at some point in her career and her life, and I know that she’s maxed that skiing one out. She’ll be able to remember it, she’ll go back.
Linds, I promise you, you can still ski fast. Everyone will get out of your way and let you go, girlfriend.
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OC: I suppose we can’t really talk about Lindsey Vonn without mentioning that at times her body has let her down. You went through that after the Nagano Games in 1998 when you had your injury at the World Cup, so you know what she’s going through. What's it like when your mind wants to go out and race, but your body doesn’t let you?
PS: I believe it’s her heart that makes her wants to go out there and race as hard as she wants to and that is getting crushed right now. I felt like a caged animal, I felt like a tiger in a cage with my nose along the bottom of the cage pacing back and forth waiting for an opportunity to get out – and I think the sad part for her is that she knows her body’s never going to let her out of that. And that has to be extremely frustrating.
But at the same time, she has such an illustrious career and such a legacy that she’s left and is just starting to leave, as far as her philanthropy and what she wants to do for the next generation, for the sport, for women, for wellness. I think that she has a nice platform to step off onto, but to not be able to have her mind, body and heart be working as one right now would be frustrating for anyone in their life, no matter what they were trying to do.
OC: You called it quits after Salt Lake City, and a lot of professional athletes, not just skiers, dread the moment they have to leave the sport. Did you suffer mentally after, and are you afraid that Lindsey will suffer the same way?
PS: I don’t necessarily think that ‘suffer’ is the right word for it. I think that… maybe becoming a little bit lost. In the sense of who am I now, who do I represent, what do I identify with, how do people identify with me, and are people still going to like me? Am I still going to be effective? Am I still going to be important? That’s something that’s going to take a couple of years. I believe it does for everybody. That’s an important time. She’s going to need a lot of support in that time.
She’s going to need to stay busy, and if I know Linds, she’s got some stuff up her sleeve. She’s got some plans with what to do with herself and with her time and with her brand in order to be able to make a difference. She’ll delve into working with kids and live vicariously through the next generations as they learn how to ride that fall line like she did. But yes, it will be a little bit of an abyss. It will be like a bottleneck going from being inside the bottle through the neck and out the other side to real life.
It’ll be a delicate time for her, as it is for every athlete. I foresee her weathering it just fine, though.
OC: Obviously at the start of the season, Lindsey got injured again and she missed Lake Louise. Do you think it’s likely that she might say, ‘I really want to come back one last time at Lake Louise’, even though she’s said that this World Championships downhill is her last race?
PS: I don’t think we can rule anything out. If we’ve learned anything about her throughout her career, it’s that we can count on her, we can bet on her, and we can be surprised by her for sure. I think that she might want to go through this process and experience what this feels like. She will constantly be listening to her body, and if it tells her ‘hey, let’s give it one more shot’, she’s going to listen and go for sure. So it wouldn’t surprise me either way she does it, if her body’s going to give her what she needs, she’ll go for it.
And I can honestly say over the course of my career and hers, watching, there are very very few champions like her that can beat the rest of the world on less than a hundred percent. And she knows that, she’s experienced it enough to know that. Even if her body will only give her eighty percent of what it used to give her, if her heart and her mind and her body are working as one, and they’re strong even at eighty percent, she’s a force to contend with. And she will be on the top step.
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Vonn's impact on skiing
OC: We spoke to Tina Maze about Lindsey and she said Lindsey brought Hollywood to skiing. The impact of Lindsey Vonn on ski racing in the United States, it’s hard to quantify because you obviously did what you did in Nagano and inspired Lindsey, and Lindsey’s gone on and inspired the next generation. What is her legacy?
PS: I think that the thing Lindsey has brought not just to ski racing in America but ski racing period is an equal attention on the females as well as the males. I think that there’s a ‘strong is the new beautiful’ that she has brought that is on par with the rest of the world in the way that the fashion industry and the way that wellness is going these days, and she’s kept right on with that heartbeat.
I think that she’s brought a femininity to the sport that allows the other girls in the sport to keep that alive, to put makeup on and to do their hair, and to wear something nice to the awards and the bib draws, and to be out in public and have the feminine side of it be alive, that is so important. It’s such a big part of who we are and it was something that I tried to do a little it when I was racing. And she embraces it. That is such a breath of fresh air that she has brought to sport, period, not just to ski racing and not just in America.
I think that she made it cool and fun and sexy to be a ski racer and to be an athlete.
And that’s really important too for people to be able to embrace. So her legacy in that way really surpasses anything that anyone has done in ski racing, for sure, and surpasses what a lot of women do. It’s on par with the Serena and Venus Williams of the world in the way that it’s been so substantial.
And she loves it, you know. There’s an entertainment factor for her but I think deep in the core of her tummy and her heart what she really strives for is to inspire. To inspire people to be their best, to be the best they can be, to look the best they can look, and take care of themselves. And then smile and pay it forward and pass it on.
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OC: One of the things that is the elephant in the room for her, almost, is Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup wins record which she really, desperately, wanted to beat this year.
OC: And if not for her body, she very well might have done it. And the other thing was she always wanted to race against the men. What are your thoughts on both?
PS: I think if her body had stayed intact for her and hadn’t become deteriorated to a point where she wasn’t able to ask of it what she needs, it would’ve been inevitable. that train was like a freight train down the tracks and the only thing going to derail it was her body. I think it would just have only been a short period of time. I think if she’d had stayed healthy going into this season and hadn’t had that early-season crash before Lake Louise, we would’ve seen it done this year for sure in this season.
That’s going to keep chewing at her. That’s going to keep her going, going to keep her hungry. It’s not something she’s going to be able to let go very easily at all and I think she’s very aware that Mikaela Shiffrin is on track to potentially break that record and she’s definitely not going to want that to happen. That I think is definitely going to be one of the most difficult points for her emotionally to deal with.
As far as racing the guys goes, I had the same quest and I tried skiing on guys’ skis like she did as well and I think that’s a personal drive. At what point, where does she look? She’s got the bullseye on her back, everyone knows she’s the one to beat every time she steps out on the hill. Where does she put her bullseye? Where does she aim her focus? And I did the same thing. I focussed at the guys, thinking how I would hang and how I would do there.
And that’s just a personal drive, that’s her internal drive and push and curiosity. Not necessarily anyone in particular she wants to beat or anything she wants to prove. It’s an inevitable place for her to point her target, what else is there? I think that one will be easier for her to let go, because it just didn’t really line up. I think that Stenmark, and some other female potentially breaking that record, that’s going to be a tough spot for her for sure.
OC: You mentioned Mikaela. She is the one who’s going to step into Lindsey Vonn’s shoes. And she’s had an amazing season. She seems to be a very different person to Lindsey Vonn. Does she have what it takes to take over from Lindsey, almost, as that face of women’s ski racing?
I think she does when it comes to actually ski racing inside of the sport. I think when you just look at victories and approaches, I think that yes, they’re neck and neck on that one.
But everything else that Lindsey brings to the table, no. She’s going to stay that sweetheart in that way. She’s going to stay that kind of sex symbol. She’s going to stay that powerhouse, beautiful woman and the legacy for the next generations in that capacity. In as far as bringing the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, and that to the sport. That’s going to be tough to compete with.
I don’t know that Mikaela cares, too. I’m not sure she has the same motivation in that way. I’m not sure she wants that same kind of spotlight that Lindsey has in that capacity.
EXCLUSIVE: Picabo Street gives Lindsey Vonn advice on the future
EXCLUSIVE: Picabo Street gives Lindsey Vonn advice on the futureLindsey Vonn's hero Picabo Street tells Olympic Channel about what Vonn can expect in retirement, and shares advice with her compatriot.
OC: Back to Lindsey, she’s said that her Lindsey Vonn Foundation was inspired by you, because she wants to help young girls balance academia and sport and artistry or whatever else they want to do. And obviously you run your academy, as well. Have you two spoken about doing something together along those lines?
We haven’t spoken in person about it, but the message has definitely been sent back and forth about it. I think that that synergy would be really organic and would make much sense. I always told her that she was going to need something like that to feel fulfilled. To feel like it was a full circle for her. To feel like she wasn’t too selfish in doing the ‘me myself and I’ thing that you have to do in order to be a competitive athlete and have the schedule you have and be doing what you’re doing. So I was very, very proud of her when I saw that she had started the foundation.
And I think it’ll be something that gives her a really strong place to be, another platform to step over to, and to really delve her time into and she will be extremely successful with it. And the kids that get to go to her programs and her camps and benefit from her effort are going to be very very lucky, because she’s a winner, she’s a champion. And when she shifts her dreams, her focus, to that, there are hundreds, thousands, millions of kids whose lives are going to be impressed in a positive way.
I think it’s something that’s going to be her big next step, and then as soon as she has babies, that’s going to be the next big step that I think will probably be the most rewarding thing that she does on a personal level in her life. And I think it’ll be fun for her to kind of bridge between skiing and the impression and difference that she’s made, and then into her foundation, and then into motherhood.
She’s set up to really have a great future and leave an insane legacy as a female athlete and a strong, healthy woman on the world.
OC: Finally, any words of advice, directly to Lindsey, for retirement?
PS: I think just keep listening to you, and listening to your heart, and it will keep guiding you in the right direction. And if it doesn’t feel right in your belly and you second-guess something, it probably isn’t.
You know, her intuition is going to change and that radar is going to change a little bit, but as long as she keeps a close hand on it and keeps everything close to her heart and true to her, just start and end everything with love and good thoughts to yourself.
And you’ll find your new niche, girlfriend, you’re a powerhouse. You’ll be great.