Skiing legend Picabo Street shares how she overcame crushing knee and leg injuries to compete her final Olympic race. Equally amazing? Her mom, Dee, was right there to cheer her on—despite RA!
This time of year, you’d normally find Olympic Gold Medal skier Picabo Street on the slopes near her home in Park City, UT. But 2014 is another story. As a FOX Sports analyst and Liberty Mutual Team USA ambassador for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Picabo has probably spent more time talking about skiing than hitting the powder lately!
Not that she’s complaining. When Picabo retired from ski racing in 2002, the downhill dynamo was more than satisfied with her time on the mountain, which included winning two Olympic medals and back-to-back World Cup downhill season titles. Still, there was one thing missing that day she skied to Olympic gold in 1998. “The long plane trip combined with the hills in Nagano [Japan] would have been too hard on my mom to navigate,” says Picabo.
The problem? Dee was crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA). “We both wished she could have been there, but I knew she was cheering me on from afar.”
A devastating crash
Then fate stepped in and gave mother and daughter a common goal: making it to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. While racing in Switzerland just weeks after winning the gold, Picabo suffered a crash that snapped her thighbone and shredded the ligaments in her knee. After multiple surgeries, the then-26-year-old athlete was unsure if she could ever return to the world of competitive skiing.
But Picabo pushed through recovery, fueled by the desire to compete in one final Olympics. The next four years were a blur of surgeries, rehab and slowly testing her mettle on the race hill again. When she qualified for the 2002 Winter Games, Picabo’s mom was determined to attend what they knew would be the last competition of her daughter’s career.
Dee’s main hurdle: Not having the stamina to endure hours of painful sitting in the stadium while her daughter ran multiple races for her event. “Getting ready for the 2002 Olympics, for me, was more of a mental preparation than anything else,” Dee recalls. “I knew I was going to have to walk even though my knees were bone on bone.”
Getting back up
To prepare, Dee focused on building her leg muscles, which she’d have to rely on since her knee joints were shot: “I took a job where I had to walk up and down a narrow set of stairs about three times a day,” says Dee. “That helped me gain stability and strength in the back of my legs. Stairs are a good way to help your legs develop ‘brakes’ for going downhill.”
Picabo said it was painful to watch her mom “train” for months just to be able to watch her final run at the Olympics. By the time she zipped down the slope for the last race of her career, says Picabo, it didn’t matter that she’d come in 16th. “I had set myself for qualifying, and after that, that was it. I got to get back on the horse and I got to compete at home, with the home crowd.”
And Dee Street was there in the stands to see her do it. “It couldn’t have been better,” says Picabo. “I’ve always admired her perseverance. Despite having RA, my mom has always kept moving.”
The skiing legend sums it up like this: “It’s really tough being hurt as an athlete. My setbacks were a time when I learned the most about myself—it’s when you rise up.”
How Picabo helped her mom through double knee replacement!
After her daughter’s triumphant appearance at the 2002 Olympics, Dee decided to make her own comeback by having surgery to replace both her knees, which had been badly damaged by RA.
And Picabo coached her through rehab. “Though Picabo and I were trying to reach benchmarks, they were guidelines, not deadlines,” says Dee. “I feel like I’ve accomplished my own personal ‘Olympics’ because I gained full range of motion in both knees.” Here are the tips from Picabo that helped her do it! (Ask your doctor before trying any new exercise.)
Ease into your routine: “I followed Picabo’s guidance and took it very slowly in the beginning. We set small goals and measured our progress each day,” says Dee.
Do “assisted” squats: “I remember hating the wall slides,” laughs Dee. “But they strengthen all the muscles above and below the knee. The first month was very hard, but it worked!” If you want to try this move—where you slide down a wall into a sitting position, then push yourself back up—get help from a physical therapist.
Stretch these muscles: Picabo showed her mom how to do calf stretches and heel lifts, which Dee still does today. “When I don’t stretch, I get cramps at night.” Try this calf stretch: Sit on the floor with your legs straight. Wrap a towel around the ball of your foot and slowly lean back while pulling on the towel. Hold for 10-20 seconds; repeat two more times with each leg.