At Olympics, Picabo Street is skiing's biggest fan

Feb. 22, 2010, 7:19 a.m. (ET)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) Picabo Street could feel it: the crunch of snow under her skis, the poles in her hands, even the nervous knot in the pit of her stomach.

Only she wasn't skiing. Lindsey Vonn was.

And when Vonn's gold medal-winning run in the downhill was over, Street wept.

"Tears of pride for the 9-year-old that I watched blossom into a beautiful flower," Street said, nearly tearing up again. "She pulled it off. It was such a relief."

Street won a gold medal in the super-G at the Nagano Games in 1998, to go with a silver in the downhill in the 1994 Lillehammer Games. She won consecutive World Cup downhill season titles in 1995 and 1996.

As a child, Vonn, then Lindsey Kildow, idolized Street and even scored her autograph at an event in Minneapolis.

Street took Vonn under her wing and the two became teammates in Salt Lake City in 2002. It was Vonn's first Olympics and Street's last.

Vonn arrived at the Vancouver Games with the eyes of the world on her and she made headlines when she revealed before competition that she had a shin injury and couldn't put on her boots without pain.

But she went on win the gold medal in the downhill in Vancouver and the bronze in the super-G. While she fell in the super-combined, she still has two events left.

"She's come in here with so much pressure on herself, and everybody kind of let her carry that," Street said about her close friend. "She's handled herself spectacularly. She has maintained her emotions.

"The beautiful thing about her is she's been graceful. Through all of it."

Street is in Vancouver as an Olympic analyst for NBC's Today show, so she's more than just a casual observer. But in a way, she's also the sport's biggest fan.

She was impressed with the performance of Vonn's teammate Julia Mancuso, who won silver medals in the downhill and the super-combined. While Vonn came into the Olympics with everything to lose, Mancuso almost had everything to win.

There were low expectations for Mancuso because of hip surgery and back problems after the 2006 Turin Games.

Street says the two women will pave the way for the next generation of American skiers. It's much like how Street paved the way for Vonn and Mancuso.

"I'm just so happy for what they've done and the examples they've set - two really contrasting examples. The kids who are like Lindsey have her example and the kids who are like Julia have her example. It will translate. You are going to see a generation - this generation, watching these Olympics - you're going to see this translate into medals for the United States," Street said.

Street spoke during a visit to the Canada House for an event Sunday night. Earlier in the day, Bode Miller won his gold medal in the super combined.

Like Vonn in Vancouver, Miller was the face of the U.S. team heading into the 2006 Olympics. But he left Turin empty-handed.

When asked about Miller, Street cracked a broad smile and the fan in her emerged again.

"I knew he would. The fire that Bode competes with comes from within his gut," she said. "It doesn't matter what the rest of us do or say. He just needed to settle down and find himself."