To photograph three athletes for “Wild in Winter” (page 302), Mary Ellen Mark made her first trip to a ski resort –Oregon’s Mount Hood- last summer. Though vertigo made riding the ski lift a challenge, focusing on the surrounding environment helped Mark overcome her fear of heights and create the surreal quality that sets her pictures apart from sports-magazine action shots. Best known for her documentary photographs, Mark has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship last year. She is working on her tenth book, a collection of images of America from the 1960s to the present. “I don’t know when I’ll ever finish,” she says. “I’m having so much fun taking more pictures.”
The same aggression and intensity that bring success on the slopes or on the ice can also make women athletes seem like rebels. Elizabeth Royte lets three winners tell their own stories. Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.
Picabo Street. “If I had to say what makes me good at down hill racing, I’d say inner drive,” says Olympic medalist Picabo Street. “No one puts as much pressure on me than I do: I compete with myself. I care less about my time than doing it right.” White downhill ski suit by Charles Ancona design, about $600.
She raced into public consciousness in the 1994 Olympics, winning the silver medal in downhill skiing. Last year she won six major downhill races, five of them consecutively, and in March she took the World Cup title. She has been ubiquitous in the media ever since, but has none of the celebrity's false modesty. At 24, she is notoriously outspoken, fiercely independent, and convinced that she can dominate women's skiing.
Picabo Street was born in a tiny Idaho mining town. Her parents called her Baby Girl until she was five and a trip to Mexico necessitated official papers. They chose Picabo, the name of a Native American tribe. In 1988, when she was sixteen, Street won national junior downhill and super G (speed events) titles, but two years later her bright promise dimmed. Recovering from an injury in Park City, Utah, she began goofing off‑until the coaches sent her packing. After a period of introspection, she whipped herself into shape, rejoined the team, and started winning.
Today, Street is preparing for World Cup races in the downhill and super G and, for the first time, in slalom and grand slalom as well. She is counting on clinching the downhill title, but making the transition to the technical races will be difficult.
Street explains how she became a championship skier:
"Growing up, I didn't know what was hip, what girls were trying to look like ‑I was pretty out of it. Then, boom. It kicked in, and I got big and strong quickly. In junior high school, it was tough on me. One guy I liked went out with another girl just because she was thinner and cuter. Then I'd go out for track and field, and I'd be way physically dominant. Sports are an avenue to be happy with myself. And that's why I do the media I do. It's important for girls to see bigger women with strong opinions, who are also sensitive and vulnerable. I want to tell them, 'You can be a strong athlete and still be feminine.'
“This sport does define me. It’s pretty intense in speed, in concentration, and in focus. Downhill is graceful, like a dance. I like to make it flowing so people enjoy watching me. You also need to be fearless. I'll jump off a 60‑foot cliff into water, and not just because someone's goading me.
"Still, skiing isn't all I'm about. That's part of why I'm so good: I could quit tomorrow and pick up something else and give it my all. Like Michael Jordan‑he knew he could school everyone in basketball. But he challenged himself.
"When I left the ski team, in 1990, I wasn't very happy having someone tell me what to do. I think what happened is pretty predictable, and I'd probably do the same thing again because it forced me to decide what I wanted. I sat down and wrote the pros and cons on a piece of paper. There were so many more pros! After the Olympics, I saw that most of the pros had happened: winning a medal, making friends with people from all walks of life, becoming the best I can be at skiing, learning to mesh with an entire team of women and coaches.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but I proved that I can be dominant. Actually, I'm not that competitive: I don't get off on beating everyone on the mountain. I compete with myself. In downhill racing, it's just me against the clock‑the hill and me. I prove that I'm worthy; it's not style points, or hoping that the judge likes my hair, my dress, or the music. That's a bunch of bull. Let's cut to the chase and see what you've got."
Nicole Bobek. Free spirit. ”I don’t particularly like my media image as the bad girl of figure skating, but I don’t want to deny my flair or lose my individuality.” Bobek says. White satin car coat by OMO Norma Kamali NYC.
Nicole Bobek’s rebellious style has clashed with figure skating’s fairy princess image, but the eighteen-year-old says, “I’m a teenager. That’s what we do.” Skate dress by Wearable Energy by Frances Colon, about $175.
At the age of seventeen, Nicole Bobek shed her cloak as the mercurial also‑ran to claim the ladies' U.S. Figure Skating Championships. One month later, she took the bronze in the World Championships. That was last March. Bobek first slipped into a pair of skates at a Chicago ice rink at the age of three and a half. She is known for her trademark spiral‑spinning at dizzying speed with one leg high in the air ‑and, at the top of her game, a crowd‑pleasing, irrepressible sparkle.
Off the ice, her reputation has been somewhat less than sterling. Because she's stubborn and free‑spirited, the press has labeled her difficult, a wild child. She's been known to smoke ‑a habit that doesn't jibe with the fairy‑princess image of ladies' figure skating. She once dyed her hair purple and sometimes dressed in grunge. When she wore rings on every finger, the newspapers dubbed her "Brass Knuckles." "I'm a teenager," Bobek says, shrugging. "That's what we do."
Last November, Bobek was arrested on a "home invasion" charge, for allegedly breaking into the house of a skating friend and taking money. In January, she entered a youthful‑offender program, was placed on probation, and was assigned 50 hours of community service; later, all charges were dropped. "It was all just a big misunderstanding," Bobek says today. Her recent victories, it seems, have put such troubles behind her.
She explains why she's now trying to be a different kind of athlete:
"When I was a little girl, all I knew was that I wanted to skate. I wanted to be alone out there, to feel the freedom of it. When I get onto the ice and the music goes on, I come alive.
"I'm not going to school now, because I'm so busy training, but I would like to get my degree eventually. Most of my friends are professional athletes, because they can relate to what I'm going through. Still, I'm a normal teenager. I like to shop and listen to music and sleep and gossip. I sometimes write poetry and draw.
"I've really grown up in the past two years. When I first started, I just skated: I didn't realize the responsibility I had to my coach, to myself. Then, before the nationals, I really had to put my act together. My coach helped me rethink things. You have to be responsible for the music in the program, for your arm movements, for your jumps. When I was young, I didn't think about those things. Now I see skating as a job. "Figure skaters have to project a certain image. You have to be a perfect little lady all the time. It doesn't bother me; I like to look neat. Tonya [Harding] got in trouble for wearing a dress without sleeves, and she should have. It was too muscular and not feminine. In this sport, you can't be too aggressive. I'm used to putting aside what I want ‑going out with friends, to parties and dances‑ in order to project a positive image.
"I think I draw a lot of the media attention because I'm a very open person. It makes me mad when they get stuff wrong, but people will believe what they want to believe anyway. I don't particularly like my image as the bad girl of figure skating, but I don't want to deny my flair either, or lose my individuality.
"My goal now is to win an Olympic medal. I dream of it all the time, of giving the performance of my life. If I accomplish that goal, I'm set up for life. I'll turn pro, I'll have my own ice shows. Once I'm an Olympic champion, everything will be great."
Sabrina Sadeghi. “I’m not girly and timid, and encourage others not to be,” says Sabrina Sadeghi. “It’s time to get out of the mold of being weak, frail and small, and go out and be strong and do whatever you want to do.” Powerstretch black turtleneck by DKNY, about $125. Snowboard pants by Deep, about $150.
Last February, Sabrina Sadeghi launched herself off the lip of an eight-foot half‑pipe ‑something like a long skateboard ramp made out of snow‑ and walked away with a World Cup Snowboarding title. Sadeghi grew up skiing in Aspen. At twelve, she and a girlfriend rented snowboards and spent the day falling down, begging anyone who'd listen for help. The next day, sore and tired, Sadeghi tried again. After day three, she persuaded her father to buy her a board. A precocious athlete ‑she mountain biked, rock climbed, skated competitively, and played tennis‑ she was soon snowboarding with the high school team. After some fine‑tuning at a camp in Canada, she began competing in local, then regional and national events, amateur and then pro. Her specialty is the half‑pipe, but she also likes racing and, when free riding, jumping off heights (30 feet is her limit so far). A self‑assured, good‑natured young woman, Sadeghi has a habit of giggling at the ends of her sentences. Her teammates kid her for laughing while she rides; she kids herself for laughing as she crashes.
Snowboarding is likely to be an event in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and Sadeghi hopes to participate. In the meantime, she competes globally with the U.S. Snowboard Team ‑eight women and eleven men‑ and studies international relations at Western Washington University.
Here's how she sees her life as a top‑flight snowboarder:
"In a competition, I might start off with a front side indy and then a method. Then I'd go for a front side 540 to an Alley Oop into a tail grab and finish off with a McTwist. I don't have a concept of time when I'm out there, but the whole thing lasts about a minute. All half‑pipes are different, so you have to find the right line, and the snow changes as it gets warmer ‑it gets rutted and a little bit bumpy.
"Aggression is what makes me good at what I do. The boys tell me that I have to be even more aggressive if I want to win. My boyfriend, also a snowboarder, pushes me and says, 'You shouldn't even be competing with girls; you should be looking at what the guys do and competing with them!' I think women are every bit as capable as men, if they're strong and athletic. In snowboarding, you can't just hang out and let it happen and be good at it. If you want to do well and go big, you have to go after it.
"Snowboarding has made me more aggressive in the rest of my life. I'm kind of shy, and it's helped me to get over that. I have to deal with sponsors, and I've learned to ask for what I want and get what I need.
"I'm very different from the women in my family. My aunt used to be a fashion model, and my mom looked like a runway model. I think they had certain ideals for me when I was young; they wanted me to be a pretty little girl. I was totally turned off by that whole thing. I don't want to be girly and timid, and I encourage others not to be. At Mount Hood, where I teach snowboarding in the summer, my students are Japanese girls, and I really push them, get them riled up. It's time to get out of the mold of being weak and frail and small, and go out and be strong and do whatever you want to do.
"I don't think of snowboarding as my life. I don't want to let a sport define who I am. I like being a student and being young. Snowboarding is my career for now, but I know I can't do it forever ‑either physically or satisfaction‑wise. Eventually I'll want to have a different focus. And I'd like to give a little in return for all that I take. I'm thinking about the Peace Corps for next summer.
"I don't think I'm a really competitive person, I just compete with myself. I want my teammates to do well; I only hope I'll do better than they do.
"My main goal is not to forget that snowboarding is something that's fun. If it got to the point where all I thought about was competing and getting paid, getting coverage and making money, I'd step away and say, 'I won't do this anymore.' It's important to remember why you do the things you do. I snowboard because it gives me a good feeling to do it. If I lost that, I'd try to find that feeling somewhere else."