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Picabo Street, 53: American Hero

Grit and determination made Picabo Street a two-time Olympic medalist. Now it is informing the way she shows up for her family, herself, and the students at her academy. Heroes show up in many forms.

At age 12, Picabo Street saw the Olympics for the first time on television and declared she wanted to be part of that, and to win it. This would be similar to any other 12-year-old saying they wanted to be an astronaut and go to the moon. The difference is that Picabo, by sheer force of will, became a two-time world champion, with an Olympic Silver at Lillehammer in 1994 and Gold in Nagano in 1998. There were no elite American women ski racers back then; it was a European sport. Picabo was an unknown force from out of the blue who paved the way for the generations of American women who followed her. 

Growing up in a small, tin-roof house with no basement in tiny ​​Triumph, Idaho with a very modest family was not exactly a common route to the world stage. Alpine ski racing, as one can imagine, is an expensive sport. A combination of her raw athletic talent and unimaginable grit got her to the top slot in the world.

Then what happens after the inevitable end of an elite-level career? How does one go from the necessary self-centered focus of elite athletics to the virtual opposite: the selflessness of now being a loving mom of 3 boys? How does one support, encourage, and care for them while understanding they are not you and they are very different people than you are? 

What struck me about Picabo, and I have been around a few high-performing people, is: that fire, that precocious ferocity she displayed at 22, is still there. In person, she is disarmingly present. There is a kind gentleness to her, but one can feel the power sitting under the surface — not in a threatening way, but more of a determination to live her life in the best way possible. Talking with her, a smiling mom at 53, is to be reminded that heroism comes in many forms, from being a world champion to being the very best mom possible for her kids. The best of us shift and adapt; we are no longer young, but that does not mean we are without the goal of greatness, in whatever form that may take for each of us today.

Picabo Street

“I had honestly just always wanted to be the fastest time on the scoreboard, boys or girls”

I’ve read that most people fear their greatness. One of the things that strikes me about your story is: at a young age, you told your father, “I want to do this thing.” And then you did it, which is extraordinary to me.
I grew up without television. I watched the Sarajevo games in 1984 at a friend’s house. That’s when I was like, “Oh, that’s where my skiing could take me.” Before that, I had honestly just always wanted to be the fastest time on the scoreboard, boys or girls. It didn’t matter what age group. It didn’t really hit me what fame or what becoming a household name or what that greatness or success could look like until I actually accomplished it, and then it was like, “Oh.” And then this big scramble to get it together. 

I recognized it more towards the end of my career, and it became more of a reality. Sometimes imposter syndrome would creep in. Sometimes when you’re blessed with natural talent, you don’t have to work as hard as others you see, who are overcoming a lack of it. You feel like it’s easier for you. 

I had a teammate tell me this one time. I asked her, “Why don’t you win? Because you ski well enough to win. So, what is it?” And she looked right at me. And she was very candid and very honest. She said, “I’m afraid of who I will become once I start winning, because I’m not familiar with that person. Am I going to get annoyed by people wanting my time and my autograph and extra stuff from me? Am I going to get annoyed by being the one everybody’s looking at at inspection? Will I turn into, for lack of a better term, a bitch?” And I was like, “Whoa, it’s fear of the unknown.” 

“Everybody believes they have the right to judge; which my beliefs say that you’re not allowed to do that”

Picabo Street
Image by David Harry Stewart.

Most of us are just more comfortable with what we know. 
Yeah, it’s like an abyss out there. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how people are going to perceive you. There’s this microscope on you all the time. Everybody believes they have the right to judge; which my beliefs say that you’re not allowed to do that. You’re not supposed to judge others. 

Tell us about fear and how it relates to anger.
The first time I ever skied, I was not scared of skiing, I was scared of the chairlift!

The first time I really genuinely met fear was at 29 years old. I had broken my femur and blown my knee out in two different legs. I had a huge recovery to go through.

Anger, being a second emotion, is throwing caution to the wind, if you will, and all that extra nonsense. That gray white noise that wants to come into your head by way of negative thoughts. They don’t have any place to live, they don’t have any air to breathe, and they’re snuffed out. You’re just radar-red. But the only way that that works is if you train hard enough and you have enough healthy habits on board for skiing, skiing well, and skiing safely and fast. 

“I think the thing that propels people to the top three steps, and the top step in particular, is this: There’s no accepting anything less than winning”

Grit can be thought of as the intersection of passion and perseverance. To go from where you were to winning gold, it’s not a fairy tale, because it happened, but it’s unbelievable. 
Matthew McConaughey says unbelievable is a bad word. He said, “You just saw it happen. How could it be unbelievable?” So that’s an interesting combo. Grit means more like your willingness to try it again, your willingness to grind it out and do what you have to do in order to get the opportunity to do it in the first place or again; grit’s never giving up or stopping. 

Picabo Street
Picabo Street winning the gold.

Would that define you? 
Yeah, that’s a visceral sense of me. At everything I do. I wash the dishes well; I grind at it until it’s done and it’s done well. Everything I do has that kind of commitment, which, as a mom, you learn not to expect of all of your children, because they are not each necessarily built the same. The mental toughness thing is something that I for sure have.

I think the thing that propels people to the top three steps, and the top step in particular, is this: There’s no accepting anything less than winning. And it’s this spot that sometimes is like watching a bighorn sheep jump from one cliff to another. And, I mean, they’re dying if they don’t make it. They’re definitely not thinking about not making it. They’re thinking about what they have to do to get to that next step. And they make that leap. They make that jump. 

You believed in yourself. You didn’t really care what anybody thought about you; you were just this presence. 
Yeah, I was too busy to be distracted by it, honestly. 

Picabo Street, dynastar lange

“The best way to be able to live with myself, and to look myself in the mirror and be okay, is to be authentically me”

So, how does that translate to today? Are you more sensitive to what people say?
I didn’t have this preconceived notion of what it meant to be famous and what it meant to be known and have everybody look at me. My name is so strange that I had kids making fun of me all the time at school. I just got to the place where I was like, “You know, you’re going to have to come up with something better than that. I’ve already heard that one.”  I grew a thick skin having to do with my name. 

Being a Christian, I was like, “Well, there’s someone else they’re going to answer to for having judged me.” I don’t have the right or the time or the energy or the desire to be trying to change anybody’s mind. And the best way to be able to live with myself, and to look myself in the mirror when I’m brushing my teeth and be okay, is to be authentically me. At the same time, I wanted everybody to like me. I wanted to make everybody happy. I’ve always been a really social person, and I’m invigorated by interactions with others.

At the end of the day, all I can do is be genuine, authentic, and start and end everything I do with love. And if somebody’s panties are in a bunch and they’re in a weird spot, there isn’t much I can do about it other than pray for them and hope that they get to a better spot. 

Picabo Street
Image by David Harry Stewart.

“Adversity is constantly coming our way as a gift”

There’s another phrase that we write a lot about in AGEIST: We’re stronger than we think we are. 
Adversity is constantly coming our way as a gift. I’ve always looked at it as a gift, as a way to find another level of strength, find another level of grit, find some more tenacity, have more perseverance and just push through. So, I think one of the big things that stops people from being as strong and as great as they could be is fear of leaving others behind, fear of ending up alone in a zone where there’s a small number of folks.

People want to belong; they really want to feel a sense of belonging. One of the mistakes that people make is they want to fit in as opposed to belonging.  As Brené Brown says, “The difference between fitting in and belonging is authenticity.”

Tell me more about that.
You only truly belong if you’re authentically you. But to fit in, you sort of mould yourself to whatever, say different things, wear different things, act a different way, and be different. Like Dr. Seuss says, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out!” Just now, our society is getting to a place where people feel like: Oh, I can be authentically me. 

Everybody, at the core of their being, wants to fit in. We are social beings. But there are those with a certain desire to be more like a rocket and launch into no man’s land and check out the view from there. 

Picabo Street

“That’s where I apply my mental toughness: to not let the things that are out of my control bum me out or make me angry”

So, how does this mental toughness and grit play out in your life today?
I have to spend a lot of time and effort making sure that I move my chess pieces correctly. You can’t over expect from your kids. Nor can you expect them all to be like you or to even want to follow in your footsteps. I can”t project my desire for an outcome onto others. I have to really accept people for who they are, accept the world for how it works, accept the flow of traffic and how it goes, accept the line at the grocery store, and even accept some of the people that are in a super grumpy bad mood.

That’s where I apply my mental toughness: to not let the things that are out of my control bum me out or make me angry. And when it comes to grit, I’m gritty as a mom. I’m gritty as a housekeeper. I’m gritty in my approach to Pilates. The grit and the tenacity, the mental toughness are all still there. It’s just a matter of where I am applying it now.

Picabo Street
A charismatic tour-de-force, American Picabo Street took the alpine skiing world by storm in the 1990’s by winning Olympic silver and gold. But beneath the bravado and success lay a turbulent and complicated home life.

That’s a certain amount of self-regulation that I’m hearing. Did I get that right? 
You leave the house, you get almost out of the subdivision, and your 13-year-old goes, “Oh, I forgot my jersey.” So you have to turn around and go back and get it. He’s 13, and instead of getting angry and wasting a bunch of time on it, I just turned around and told him that, “At some point, I’m not going to be the one helping you retrieve your jersey.” 

I teach him how to make a list of what he needs every time he walks out the door. And don’t just check the boxes mindlessly; be present, go down your list and actually put your hands on each one of the items on your list and know that you have them. 

“There are times when you may need to have your focus in two or three spots, and sometimes it’s difficult to do that because you’re used to being right here right now”

Elite athletes all have the ability to be remarkably present and aware. How does that show up in your life today?
You pay more attention when you’re driving. You’re more present when you’re with folks at dinner. But there are times when you may need to have your focus in two or three spots, and sometimes it’s difficult to do that because you’re used to being right here right now. This applies especially to when one has kids, because they come before everything.  

I also have to really focus hard on taking the time to do self-care, go to the gym, work out, eat well, talk to friends on the phone, make time to go out and sit with friends and have dinner, go meet somebody for coffee and just chit chat, and try to create some balance.

Don’t take this the wrong way: there’s a certain amount of selfishness in being an athlete at a high level.
Oh, so much. I call it the “me, myself and I program.”

That is very much not the program when you’re a mom. What was that like?
Well, first it was a complete shift. Instead of all being me, myself and I, it’s like you just flip the paradigm, and now it’s all about your baby, all about being a mom and making sure that everything’s okay. Are they getting enough to eat every time they eat, sleeping as long as they want to sleep? Their diaper is changed as soon as it’s soiled because you don’t want that stuff sitting on the skin. I just flipped. I flipped it all into being a mom and having the same kind of intensity as mom. And I’ve had to recently really focus hard on pulling back away from totally being a micromanaging mom and bringing my self-care and my own self-wellness into it. That’s been a challenge. 

I just got my space put together with new rugs for my deck and a whole bunch of flowers. I organized a space where I sit and hang out and look over at this beautiful view. This is where I have my self-care time, my quiet time, do some breathwork and meditation, and create some balance.

“I’ve got to go to the gym so that my body doesn’t hurt and I feel good about myself. When I do that, I’m a better mom; I’m a better friend”

I’ve got to go to the gym so that my body doesn’t hurt and I feel good about myself. When I do that, I’m a better mom; I’m a better friend. I have more patience and more tolerance for the stuff that’s going on, or that goes wrong. It took me a minute to recognize that that was the outcome I was getting from going to the gym, which is very different from when I was training to compete.

Picabo Street
Image by David Harry Stewart.

Your dad had diabetes and later dementia. Do you have any thoughts about people who have been diagnosed with diabetes and are not taking care of themselves?
Millions of people have diabetes and, for whatever reason, are not doing the right thing. There’s a very small number of people who are diagnosed with the disease that actually embrace it, lean into it, and manage it correctly.

The most inspiring ones to me are those that can manage the disease with food. They change their lifestyle instead of kicking, screaming, and throwing childish temper tantrums. Ironically, my dad was diagnosed with diabetes the weekend that I raced in my first World Cup race ever. For my entire career, my father was a diabetic, but mismanaged.

He would drink soda and eat those HUGE chocolate candy bars with almonds.  He didn’t drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. The problem was his food intake, particularly sugar! Ironically, he was a gourmet chef. But, everything he cooked had bacon grease or butter and heavy cream and was just a load on his system. He loved ice cream, especially late at night. 

“For 30 years, every day, I waited for the phone call that my father had rebelled again or passed away”

What would end up happening is, at the 12-hour mark on the other side, his system would go haywire, often requiring emergency medical attention. He was a rebel without a cause. The part that was the most annoying about this was the fallout: my family — mostly my mom, my brother, and I — were constantly dealing with it and stressed out about it. It was very distracting. That’s what I meant in the film when I said he was my biggest fan, and my biggest distraction at the same time. For 30 years, every day, I waited for the phone call that my father had rebelled again or passed away.

I felt disrespected, but it was just another form of adversity that I had to find a way to persevere through. I tried to figure out why he rebelled against managing the disease. My conclusion is that he was in denial. He told himself, “Oh, if I eat what I want, pretend like I don’t have it, maybe I won’t actually have it.” And I was like, “No, you have it. It’s real.”

The percentage of people with diabetes who actually do get it right and have it figured out is minuscule compared to the number of people who are resistant to having the disease. They don’t want to talk about the fact that they have it and need to change their lifestyle to manage it. 

When the American Diabetes Association approached me to have a conversation about it and start presenting for them, they didn’t want to embrace the reality of what I lived with as a caregiver of someone with diabetes. They didn’t want my story. It was too gruesome, it was too hardcore, it was too much of a put-off, it was too scary. It was too real, honestly.

They want the story of the people who got it right because they paint the picture of, “Oh, use our pump and regulate your diet, and this is how it can happen.” Well, in a perfect world, great. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and humans are flawed, and we have to make that okay first and then go about the business of figuring out how we go about helping them manage the disease.

Picabo Street
The Picabo Street Academy.

Picabo Street Academy

Picabo Street Academy. What are you doing there?
This is our 7th year, and I am very proud of what we do there. My inspiration for our school came from being named in the ski team. At 15 years old, I started traveling the world, and finished school through the Centralized Correspondence Course. I did all my courses remotely, carried all my textbooks around the world with me, and sent my work to my teachers via snail mail.

That stimulated me to think outside the box and offer kids an easier solution. And with the internet, it’s a no-brainer. So, we are a virtual delivery on campus here in Park City. We’re open year-round and we have open enrollment. We cater to the kids. Their training and competition schedule takes priority time-wise, but only in time; not in rigor and expectation. When the kids come in, they get to school and they do their work. They are highly focused. We’re not having lunch and we’re not having PE class and we’re not doing all that babysitting service that happens in a lot of other schools. 

A lot of them are moving way faster than they would in any other school system. 

They don’t have to worry about school when they’re doing their thing. Please don’t think about school when you’re getting ready to catch 125 ft of air.

They’re not compromising their education. We’ve got some students graduating and going on to high-level colleges. All they do is change the timeline of when the work gets done, and they’re still able to get as good and rigorous an education as they can. And it’s college preparatory. 

When athletes retire, they have two-thirds of their lives left to live. That timeline is real. The goal is to give them as many opportunities as possible to create a platform to step onto when they’re done. 

What are the three non-negotiables in your life today? 
How about 4?

1. Gluten, dairy and sugar when it comes to diet. 

2. Bad behavior, mine, first and foremost, and then others. I don’t like angry, mean, toxic people who take it out on others. That one is not okay. 

3. Fast food; it’s a no-go for me. I’ll go hungry. 

4. Spending time amongst negative people in an effort to avoid loneliness

(I’ve learned the difference between loneliness and solitude. Peace!!!)

Connect with Picabo:
Instagram @picabostreet
Email: Picabo@picabostreet.info
The Documentary “Picabo”
Picabo Street of Dreams Foundation

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


  1. Finally, an interview with this phenomenal athlete who tells it like it really is! Do I feel this way because I can relate to her? On a much different level of competition (around the same time, I am 53 too), I raced 3-wheelers and quads all over the country, winning the Grand National Championship in the late 80s, and like Picabo’s dad, my dad had type 1 diabetes his whole life and was in denial of this terrible disease. To this day, I will always be grateful for the time, money, and sacrifices my parents made so I could compete. Thank you for sharing this interview. Heidi


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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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