Picabo Street exclusive: "I have excavated a lot of old wounds"

Picabo Street opens up on family, vulnerability, and how making the movie 'Picabo' with Lindsey Vonn and Frank Marshall changed her: "I'm a different person today," she says in this emotional interview.

By Ken Browne
Picture by Bongarts

Picabo Street was already in tears minutes into the interview.

True to herself, 'Peek' was never one to hold back. She didn't as a skier, or as an Olympic champion, and now she hasn't when the time has come to tell her story in the movie 'Picabo' either.

"I have excavated a lot of old wounds. I have revisited a lot of stuff in my life that I hadn't thought about in a long time, and I've been reminded of who I am and what I'm capable of," she tells Olympics.com in an exclusive chat.

"I'm a different person today than I was when we started the project."

Co-directed by 2010 Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn and produced by Hollywood filmmaker Frank Marshall, the movie tells the incredible story of Street's rise from the tiny town of Triumph, Idaho, to the summit of alpine ski.

You can watch Picabo's 'American Dream' tale for free right now here:

Picabo Street: "My initial heart said no. Don't put yourself back out there for people to judge you again"

Picabo Street has been up against the odds ever since she was born.

Her name comes from the name of a small town 20 miles south of Triumph in the Silver Creek Preserve, Picabo is the native American word for 'shining waters,' inspired by the beautiful winding river that runs through it.

Kids would make fun of her name, pronounced 'peekaboo,' and as the only girl in her group growing up, she learned to fight her corner early.

"We were poor," her brother Baba explains, "we didn't have money, we grew our own food."

Picabo learned to ski in secret using her brother's boots and skis after the boys had gone inside, bombing down a steep hill alone next to the house, trying not to crash into the family vegetable patch.

Mom (Dee) used to say that she had two jobs: Keeping Baba fed, and keeping Peeky alive.

To go from there to Olympic and World champion with 17 World Cup podiums, putting U.S. ski on the map with her performances and personality, is one of the most extraordinary stories in sporting history.

But it didn't come without a big physical and mental cost, and reliving the journey wasn't easy, her initial impulse was to say no to doing the documentary.

"I was nervous initially, my initial heart said no," Picabo tells Olympics.com, tearing up. "Don't put yourself back out there for people to judge you again. Why?"

"And then I thought harder about it and thought, no, I've been through a lot and I've learnt a lot of lessons. And then when I found out that it was Lindsey (Vonn's) idea, I was so honoured and so tickled, sister-like tickled, you know?

"And then Frank Marshall, the cherry on top, it was at that point, absolutely. Who gets the blessing of having Frank Marshall produce their life story?"

Marshall is a veteran Hollywood movie maker who's been responsible for some of the biggest blockbusters of all time including Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and the Jason Bourne films.

"And so it's been an evolution for me, and I'm a different person today than I was when we started the project," says Picabo.

Picabo Street after she fell out of contention of the downhill competition at the 1993 World Skiing Championship in Morioka, Japan, February 1993.

Picabo Street: From 'Sassy and irreverent' to "graceful and powerful"

Rewind back to ‘Peek’ as a teenager and "sassy, irreverent, driven," are three words she chooses to describe herself as a promising young skier on the U.S. development team.

'Brash' is the word the head of the program, Paul Major, uses: She wasn't afraid to speak up, whooping on the podium and talking about how ‘damn good’ it felt to 'kick some European butt'.

But all the noise was hiding what was happening inside.

"I think I did it intentionally as a way to guard the tender part in me that I didn't want anybody to ever see and to ever expose and to ever be vulnerable because I didn't trust people enough to protect it," she says, welling up once more.

"And I think that's what all my competitiveness was when I say it was with me, it was genuinely with me.

"I was genuinely trying to be the best I could be to create this shield around me, to protect me from all my vulnerabilities and my success did that and my friendships and my camaraderie with everyone on the World Cup did that.

"I felt like I had to be friends with everyone that I was racing against (Her voice breaks, she cries) to earn the right to be able to beat them and have it not be... mean.

Picabo, after she came 33rd in the Cortina D'Ampezzo Super G event at the 2002 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in Italy. Credit: Agence Zoom/Getty Images

"To let down all of that shield and all of that guard, there's a really vulnerable tender person there, and I'm trying to figure out how to protect her and bring her to strength.

"But not be angry or aggressive or brash anymore. Be graceful and powerful. And that's the journey I'm on, trying to find that in me right now."

What is Picabo Street doing now?

A USA ski hall of famer, Street is now a devoted mother to three sons, cared for her father, who suffered from diabetes and dementia, until his death and is now caring for her mother too.

‘The sandwich generation,’ she calls it, between raising children and caring for elderly parents. The film lifts the lid on the complex relationship she had with her father.

"A beautiful, insane, intense relationship that engulfed everything," is how she explains her life with dad.

Picabo felt judged her whole life, and it was at its worst in 2016 when she was arrested and charged with assault and domestic violence.

In the film she explains how her father attacked her at home, and in an affidavit he wrote "the entire episode was my fault and Picabo was only defending herself."

All charges were dropped.

From a little girl Picabo and her brother had lived with their father's anger issues and violence, and when the story - and her mugshot - were all over the news, her sponsors fled and Picabo felt like 'the outsider' once more.

It was the big secret that the family had kept under wraps for so long, but caring for her father brought peace and grace right up to his final moments.

"It was an honour to care for my dad, it was hard and scary and I failed a lot, but it makes such a better person out of you."

“It’s an honour to care for your parents.”

Picabo Street Academy

She has also founded the Picabo Street Academy which helps kids follow their dreams, from skiers to dancers and artists.

The academy helps kids pursue their passions without falling behind academically.

"I am Picabo Street, I can't ever escape from it"

A new life has brought new challenges.

"When you become a mother, you put everything on the back burner in order to be the best mother you can be," Picabo continues.

"There's very little from my ski career that I carried into motherhood, so I was starting all over at a fresh canvas of motherhood. I really delved into being mom and trying to pretend I wasn't actually Picabo Street ski racer at any point because it was too painful.

"I guess as a mom, you fail so often every day that I started to feel like I've pulled away from that person.

"And then to have to excavate it back up and come to the surface and go, OK, I am Picabo Street, I can't ever escape from it, this is my life and my reality. I need to lean back into it and embrace it instead of trying to hide from it.

"That's what I mean by being a different person."

"Now I have this family that relies on me instead of just me on the course, and it's so much more complex and so much more real and meaningful."

Picabo Street: 'I want my kids to see me and understand me'

"The whole reason that I agreed to do the project was so that my kids could see me and understand me and know me better than they do now.

"They just know me as mom, and so it's so fun for them to get to see me as the person I was before.

They are so excited to watch it and they're so proud and I've kept it from them. They don't know their part's in it and they haven't seen it yet.

"So I'm really excited for them to get to watch it and watch themselves on the big screen and crank the volume and have them feel what they've been born into and wrap their brains around and own to some degree.

"Because they are my kiddos and they can't shake it."

How Picabo Street inspired USA's next-gen superstars Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin

Her legacy on the slopes inspired many, like a young Lindsey Vonn.

"Picabo, you are my hero... I am where I am today because of you," Vonn says in the opening interview of the movie.

"I’ve been lucky to be able to call her not only a mentor but a friend, I wanted to play this forward by documenting her incredible story in Picabo – I hope it will inspire the next generation of barrier-breaking athletes.”

But while she might have her own movie now, Picabo didn't even get to watch TV until she was 13.

When she saw Christin Cooper, Debbie Armstrong, and Tamara McKinney live on TV at the 1984 Sarajevo Games - it was an epiphany moment for her.

She turned to her father and said 'hey dad, I wanna go to the Olympics and win a medal in skiing,' and the family put everything they had into making that dream a reality.

They cleaned houses, did odd jobs, the money dad made from his stonemasonry, everything went into Picabo's dream and she took on all that pressure, all the hopes and responsibility of the family and made it happen.

A young Vonn was watching her every move, spellbound, and met Picabo when she was nine.

"She was just a young ski racer who wanted to rip it and had made a decision in her heart that she wanted to be the best there ever was, and so she was wearing that at age nine," Picabo recalls.

"So all I did is just kind of plant some seeds here and there, give her a smile, give her a push. Honestly, she has taken the baton and run with it and created such a beautiful life.

"For me to know that I was a part of that, even just the tiny little bit of part of that, it's wonderful. I paid it forward.

"Now to watch how much more she's paid it forward and what a difference she's made and how popular and hot and sexy ski racing is and how many cute girls there are doing it.

“And you know, boom-boom back-to-back her and Mikaela (Shiffrin) being the best skiers ever?

"Like, there's times when I sit and go, wow, did I really start that flame?"

Who is the greatest skier ever?

"I was, then Lindsey was, now Mikaela is," says Nagano 1998 Super G Olympic champ Picabo Street, now 50.

"But I mean, honestly, that's my opinion. And just like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder."

"She (Mikaela) is a machine, you know, and I think nowadays you can call a girl a beast, she's so fun to watch because she's just charging.

"She's trying to produce perfection and she's gotten as close as any of us have continually. So it's just like, wow."

Shiffrin is heading into the Beijing 2022 Games to try and add to her medal tally of two golds and a silver, but it's been an emotional ride for her too after she lost her own father during this Olympic cycle.

Picabo will be watching on, right behind her, as passionate as ever about skiing and other sports too.

"I'm excited to watch everything! I'm a short track speed skating fan, I'll just say that right now, that one gets me more than anything.

"It's just such a rewarding feeling to be able to bring your best and to produce it and to feel that through the screen as they're doing it."

"And go Team USA!"

Picabo Street: "The joy of the journey"

Picabo is clear about what she wants people to take away from the movie.

"I want them to take away the joy of the journey. Enjoy the ride like I did. It was fun."

"Life's been hard, but you just have to show up. Just keep showing up every day and then learning how to show up for you, right?”

She hopes that her story will also help people have more empathy towards athletes too.

"Most of the people I've met, they don't come from a Cinderella story.

"Most of the professional athletes that I've met that are successful, the ones that go on to charge for years and years, there's something deep back inside there that drives them that is utterly human and probably traumatic.

"I watched Bohemian Rhapsody. I didn't know any of that stuff. He was a performer for the people, and he gave them what they wanted. And in a way, I kind of felt like I was the same kind of person with the media throughout my career.”

"So doing this film, it's been worth it, because now people can understand, now people can go, wow, you know?

"Let's tilt the scales. Let's make this world a loving, caring place, let's all take care of one another.”

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