Layden: Revisiting the narrative with Picabo Street, 24 years later

Posted at 12:02 PM, Jan 25, 2022

This is a new story about an old story, and about a documentary film that is part highlight reel and part confessional; about a once-famous ski racer and the disorienting ecosystem of the Olympic Games. It is about public faces, fungible narratives, and family secrets, and more broadly, about the strange, flawed, and mutually mercenary relationship that always exists between writers and subjects. It is about time passing, and wounds healing. It begins almost 24 years ago, on Valentine’s Day morning of 1998, in the alpine resort of Hakuba, 30 miles from the Olympic city of Nagano, and where I was covering the Games, and specifically, Alpine skiing, for Sports Illustrated.

After breakfast that day, I walked from my little mountain condo, past vacation homes and small inns to a nearby convenience store, as I had done nearly every day. It was sunny, with cotton ball clouds, and snow was piled in colossal formations at the side of the narrow roadway, and bestride every driveway. The '98 Olympics had been even more cursed by weather than usual, with two rip-snorting blizzards and one torrential rainstorm, and this fickle weather had upended the racing schedule and become part of the story of the Games. Races had been postponed and re-scheduled multiple times, leaving athletes uncertain and unmoored (or in one high-profile instance, relieved).

On the way back to my condo, I ran into Ron Street, the then-59-year-old father of the top U.S. racer, 27-year-old Picabo Street. The family and several friends had been living in a ski home in the woods, a place called Log Haven, not far from the SI condo. Our meeting was vaguely awkward. Picabo had come to the Games just 14 months after a terrible crash and knee injury and only 12 days after a concussion but she had won a surprising gold medal in the Olympic Super-G, an event she had never won on the World Cup circuit. The downhill, her specialty, lay ahead. It was clear by then that she would be featured prominently in my weekly magazine story, which was still a significant thing in largely pre-digital 1998. Seeking some access to distinguish that piece, I had asked Picabo’s agent to let me spend some time inside Log Haven, for color. That access had been promised, and then pulled back, which happens. Shrug.

That morning I said a cautious hello to Ron, a solidly-built stonemason and ex-Marine with a salt-and-pepper beard, whose big personality and storytelling flair had made him a conduit for amplifying the (very true) Picabo narrative about a close-knit family from rural Idaho that raised one of the best American women’s downhillers in history. (There’s nothing in sportswriting quite like a colorful parent or sibling to add ballast to profiles). Ron knew that I had been trying to get embedded, and had failed. "Man, I’m sorry," he said. He had his hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet, sure signs of a source who is about to unload, with just a little nudge. Which he did.

Ron told me that things had been uneasy inside Log Haven, culminating in a family-and-friends throwdown early that morning when members of the entourage came in very late from a night of partying downtown. He was frustrated and angry, and in no small part worried about his daughter’s readiness. "There used to be just a few of us, and we could go anywhere we wanted," he said. "Now we need three cars and we’re an entourage." Classic angle: Trouble in paradise. It was, as we say in the biz, good stuff.

Two days later, under blue skies and on hillsides, cleared of powder and transformed into icy race hills, Street finished sixth in the downhill, missing a bronze by .17 seconds. We talked afterward, and she acknowledged the unrest that her father had relayed to me. "We vibrate on a high level in our family," she said. She also said that she missed a medal because — after all those crashes, "… I didn’t want to go into the fence." It was Monday midday in Japan, Sunday night back at the SI offices in New York, which meant that I was on deadline.

I wrote a story that was equal parts Street and men’s double gold medalist Hermann Maier of Austria, for whom weather delays enabled recovery from a legendary downhill crash. The magazine, dated Feb. 23, 1998, featured my friend Carl Yarbrough’s remarkable shot of an airborne Maier on the cover, and inside, another of Carl’s images, this one of Street winning the Super-G, under the headline: Street Fighting. My story paired up Maier and Street and suggested strongly that the weather had allowed Maier to heal and Team Street to come unglued. I did not dismiss Street’s assertion that caution — and not family unrest — had slowed her downhill run, but I made it the B Side, a conscious choice.

Picabo did not like the story. She wrote a book that was published in 2001, in which she suggested that I had staked out their family’s rental home in Japan and underplayed her belief that it was self-preservation that slowed her, ever so slightly, in the downhill. Fair enough. In advance of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, I requested interviews with Picabo, and she declined. All of the above comes with the territory. She retired after those 2002 Games, and I went on, covering other skiers, which is the customary process in our worlds. That was that.

But it felt unfinished. Last Friday the documentary Picabo premiered on Peacock. Among those behind the project is Lindsey Vonn, who first idolized Street and then succeeded her as the best U.S. women’s speed skier in history (and went on to become the best speed skier, male or female, period). Also involved is Hollywood veteran and Olympic enthusiast (and former USOPC vice president) Frank Marshall. It is ostensibly the story of Street’s non-traditional upbringing, unlikely stardom and very adult struggles, but also a reckoning with scars kept hidden. (Peacock is owned by, and I am employed by NBC, so it’s inappropriate for me to offer a recommendation. But if you are new to the Picabo Street story, this will get you caught up).

The film tells of a family that lived at the base of a steep hillside in Triumph, Idaho and grew its own food, and of a little girl named after a Native American word for "Shining Waters." That was the broad-strokes narrative that followed Street onto the world stage. But the harsher backbone of the film is Street’s complex relationship with her father, a man she idolized, but whom she also describes as engaging in abusive behavior with her mother, while she and her older brother, Baba, were children, lying awake. "If you wake up to your parents fighting, you know it," Street told Vonn in the film. "There’s a certain thump on the floor, there’s a certain sound of a slap, there’s a certain velocity of voice that stays with you forever."

Baba Street, in the film, says, "An attribute about dad that a lot of people didn’t know is that he would give you the shirt off his back, he was an extremely giving person. But he also carried a lot of anger in his life."

This was the family secret that Picabo kept buried throughout a decade-long rise to the top of the ski racing world and into the homes of American Olympic television viewers. It’s the secret that she took to Nagano, and which I almost stumbled upon, but not quite.

An hour into the documentary, Street describes her father’s return to the house in Hakuba after talking with me, and telling her that we had spoken.

"Do I need to worry about this?" she recalls saying to her father.

"Maybe," she says was her father’s response.

In the documentary, Street continues: "That was definitely the closest we had come to the elephant in the room being seen, to our secret coming out."

Last week I requested an interview with Street and she agreed. It was the first time we had spoken since an hour after the Olympic downhill in Japan, 24 years ago. Of the Nagano incident, she said, "You came close, really close, to sniffing us out."

But the truth is: I didn’t. I learned that the Street family narrative that we had all run with was not complete, but I did not understand the depth of the family’s pain. And herein lies a hard reality about the relationship between writers and those whom they — we — write about, notably in the world of sports feature-writing and featurized event reporting, where we strive to capture the essence of a subject, constrained by time, circumstance and most of all, truths that a subject withholds, or that we fail to find. As journalists, even at our best and most earnest, we access only a slice of a subject’s life, captured at a singular moment, framed by the emotions of that moment — victory or defeat, celebration or despair; medal or no medal; self-assurance or fear. We take a snapshot and hope it holds.

And our work almost always requires some cleanup, occasionally because we got something wrong, or much more often because we got it right, and opened a wound. But we move quickly on to the next story, because moving on to the next story is the literal job description. The subject is left behind, either elevated by our praise, stung by our criticism or revealed, and seen, in ways that can be painful. In 1998, I was confident (and my editors agreed) that the partial unraveling of the Street fairy tale narrative was newsworthy and important, even though I didn’t understand its depth. Either way, when I moved on to cover spring college football practice, the Streets had to keep living with their demons, and with the worry that I had cracked open a door they had tried to keep closed. That was part of the deal each of us had made.

Street’s celebrity stuck for a few years, as it does with Olympians. Mike Eruzione got the rare forever deal. Street give birth to three sons from two relationships. Her three boys — Trey, 17; Dax, 12; and Roen, 11 — live with her in Park City, along with her fiancée, Jake Shores, a chiropractor. The boys ski, but they do not race.

Then in December of 2015, a big piece of the family secret became public, when Street was arrested after an altercation with her then 76-year-old father at the home in Park City, Utah that they shared with Picabo’s mom and Picabo’s sons. She was charged with three counts of misdemeanor domestic violence in the presence of a child and assault. Picabo argued in court that she had acted in self-defense, because her father, a diabetic, had become abusive after a drop in blood sugar (Picabo says this had been a lifelong issue, and that Ron had a diabetic episode in Nagano the afternoon after I spoke with him. The Street family also learned that Ron suffered from dementia. Ron Street died in 2019). Ron and Picabo’s mother, Dee, signed statements supporting their daughter and all charges were dropped. But the damage to Street’s reputation and marketability were significant; she was dumped by sponsors that had supported her since her racing days. And she was briefly back in an unwanted spotlight.

It would be more than five years before Street agreed to tell her own full truth to Vonn and Marshall and to make a record of her career and life at the age of 50. Why now? "At first, my gut said 'no,'" Street told me. "But when I saw the [filmmakers’] vision for the piece, to present [my life] in a positive way, that got me thinking, okay, maybe this would be a good opportunity to let my children know me, and also, maybe make a positive difference in people’s lives again."

That difference comes in the form of a message, to families living under circumstances where abuse is present. "The truth is that my dad was never shown how to do things better," says Street. "He struggled to do it better. But it takes a lot to break the cycle. I’ve come to understand that when you are living in radar red situation, and experiencing trauma, you build a shield around yourself and that shield stays up until the trauma stops. So that is my mission here, and my brother’s mission, helping others break the cycle."

This interview with Street was, for me, a rare chance to revisit a past engagement, to get a little piece of closure. Often the feature story is an interloper’s game. Write and praise, or write and expose, but either way, disappear afterward. It is mercenary work from both sides, for the subject seeking exposure and for the writer seeking…. exposure, too, though always with much less at risk. Nearly a quarter century ago, I secured good, accurate quotes from primary source that were germane to an important story, and ran with them. Nevertheless, I wondered over time if I had done harm to the family with that story. "You didn’t," says Street. "You came close. But in a way, that was a relief. I thought, okay, maybe he figured everything out, and didn’t share it." And the family went on, gradually escaping the public’s interest but not its own struggles.

There are scenes in the documentary of Street skiing with Vonn, arcing turns on Utah corduroy, the kind of turns only Olympians can make. And scenes of Street riding bikes with her three boys, and hugging the youngest. These are snapshots, too, but there is what sure looks like genuine joy in all of it, and that is encouraging because Street has lived a full life, but a hard life, too. The film feels like the kind of cleanup that empowers. The kind of unburdening that cleanses, and any peace that Street feels is hard-earned.

Her life is also a reminder that content is powerful and lasting, and sometimes incomplete, even when accurate. Content from 1998 and content from today. This is what we do: We tell the truth that we know and that truth endures. Subjects live with that truth, but often much more.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.