Picabo's parade ends without fanfare

SNOWBASIN, Utah -- The band played, the flags waved, the air horns blared, and the people waited in the sunshine with coolers and picnic blankets. Tuesday had the feel of a parade, or a coronation, or a football homecoming, or anything but what it turned out to be.

Savanna Burton was there, just like Monday. And just like Monday, the 14-year-old woke up at 6:30 a.m. with no intention of going to school. "I'll make it up some other time," the pigtailed girl said through a retainer. "Maybe."

Savanna and her family arrived at the women's downhill at 8 a.m., part of the largest crowd ever to watch a women's ski event.

Savanna was there to see Picabo.

The folding chairs and the chilled day-old turkey sandwiches were out, and the crowd screamed for the forerunners as they sailed over Lynn's Launch and into view. And though a few gasped when Forerunner D's arms flailed in a wobbly imbalance down the home stretch, no one on hand saw the stumble for what it was -- an omen.

Forerunner C caught the eye of a reporter after her run. She raised a glove and twisted it slowly back and forth. Tricky, her face said.

Snowbasin is for technicians, it was known. Tuck-and-run Daron Rahlves found that out the hard way. Watch out for Glacier's Bowl, everyone had heard. The Wildflower course is hard and choppy, the P.A. announcer warned. American Caroline Lalive, running second, caught an edge just after the Bowl and skidded out of control into a fence.

The band played on.

Carole Montillet was the 11th to drop. She mastered the Glacier Bowl, kept her tuck into the perilous Shooting Star, and sped into Lynn's Launch. Everyone looked at the scoreboard. TIME TO BEAT: 1:41:08. Montillet rode into the shadow of the Finish banner. The digits on the board scrambled and then stopped: 1:39:56.

In the third row, a man with spiked orange hair started to bite his nails.

The times slipped back into the 1:40's. Now the wait was for Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister -- the World Cup leader. Racing 25th -- one spot before Street -- she seemed to navigate the course perfectly. Dorfmeister rushed over the ledge and into view, splashing perfectly into the final leg of the course. And then, her time: 1:40:83 -- more than a full second behind Montillet.

The band stopped playing. Had the course slowed? There was no time to consider that -- Picabo appeared on the big screen. Cow bells rang. The stands rattled. A few fans stood, then a few more, then everyone. Here we go.

Street's devil-may-care energy could be felt all the way at the bottom. She blasted through the first interval just 0.04 behind Montillet. The crowd erupted. Almost in response, Street flew over a hill, landed softly and then snapped back into a tuck with a vengeance. Here she comes.

But then came Glacier's Bowl. Street held her ground but didn't own the section like Montillet did. After Interval 4, Street lagged the leader by nearly a second. The crowd gasped.

Suddenly, Street was in view, and she heard the desperate cry of the throng. She leaned forward like a bull in heat, but the clock hit 1:40 before she hit the end of her career.

Picabo Street, of Triumph, Idaho, plowed into a stop and crouched over in emotional agony. Then she stood up as straight as she could and rode her skis toward the stands. She waved. The people clapped. And then her final salute got cut off when the skier up on the hill -- Anne Marie LeFrancois -- tumbled badly. Street took off her skis and waved again as LeFrancois rolled around in pain but hardly anyone saw. And hardly anyone saw when Street turned to go and accidentally dropped her skis.

She bent over to pick them up and disappeared into history.

Over in the mixed zone, German Petra Haltmayr watched the scene unfold and said, "You give it your best. Sometimes it's enough, sometimes it's not."

A few minutes later, Picabo Street was heard over the P.A. "This is the best day I've had in my ski racing career," she yelled. "And it's all because of you."

But by then the coolers were packed, the band had put away its instruments, and Savanna Burton already was in the parking lot.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.