IF ever a sport and an athlete were made for each other, they are downhill ski-racing and Picabo Street.
Until last year, American skiers had won 102 races in 28 years of World Cup racing, only 12 of them in the prestigious downhill. (The Swiss, by contrast, own 424 victories overall, the Austrians 355.)
Last season, Picabo Street won six - the last five in a row.
This year, the 1994 Olympic silver-medalist has picked up right where she left off, screaming down the course at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, to win the first women's downhill of the season Dec. 3. She skis another World Cup downhill this weekend in St. Anton, Austria.
''Only a handful of downhillers, male or female, have ever done what Picabo's done,'' says Ernst Hager, Street's coach on the US Ski Team, ''and they did it 15 or 20 years ago, when it was much less competitive than it is today.''
How does she do it? Consistent coaching and training is one answer (Americans Hilary Lindh and Kyle Rasmussen each won two World Cup downhills last season). Street's courage and will to win are others.
Street was born at home in Triumph, Idaho, to what might be called hippie parents.
After a difficult birth, newborn Picabo ''caught her breath, cried, then saw us, laughed, and fell asleep,'' says her mother, Dee Street. ''My job was to keep her older brother fed and to keep Picabo alive,'' she says, recounting how fearless Picabo was.
''When I was a toddler,'' Picabo recalls, ''my mother knew if we were out exploring and we were on top of a cliff, that I had to go to the edge and look down. So rather than chase me to the edge of the cliff, she'd go with me and show me the edge.''
When she was 3 and her brother was 5, the family took the first of two, four-month-long trips to Central America to see how people in other cultures lived. Up to that time, Picabo was called ''Baby Girl Street,'' but when she needed a passport, her parents decided to make the name Picabo - they'd been calling her that since she was eight months old - official. Picabo means ''shining waters'' in an Idaho Indian language and is the name of a small town in Idaho.
Picabo grew up 12 miles from Sun Valley in the appropriately named town of Triumph, which was so small there were only eight children. The other seven were boys who didn't cut Picabo any slack in their constant games of football, basketball, and other sports.
The one who cut her the least slack was her brother Baba. When he was 7 and Picabo was 5, Baba took Picabo up the beginners' hill in Sun Valley. ''I cried all the way up the chairlift, then laughed all the way down, doing a figure 11 all the way to the bottom,'' Street says.
In other words, she went straight down.
She chased her brother and her friends all over Sun Valley's Baldy Mountain, where it seems every local knows how to ski fast, especially the children. Sun Valley's race program has produced some excellent skiers, including five at various levels on the US team and Christin Cooper, who won an Olympic medal and five World Cup races in the 1980s.
''I chased my brother down countless 'cat tracks, and instead of braking, I was always looking for speed,'' Street says. ''I think that's a big reason I can go so fast now.''
Because ski racing is an individual sport, the US Ski Team has always attracted its share of free spirits, but none freer than Street. She joined the team in 1989 in her late teens, and while she may have had more fun than anyone, she lacked discipline and focus. In 1990 she was kicked off the team briefly for disciplinary reasons.
That helped her focus. The other thing that's helped her focus has been teammate Hilary Lindh. Since most racers grow up in ski towns or other remote areas (Lindh grew up in Juneau, Alaska), along with being rugged individualists, they tend to be reserved.
Lindh is no exception. She is polite, smart, quiet. Until last season, she was also more focused than Street. She quietly won a silver in the downhill at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. She could only marvel at the media attention Street attracted when she did the same thing in 1994.
Perhaps because their personalities are polar opposites, Street and Lindh have never been best friends. But while Lindh seemed to teach Street how to focus by example, Street may have taught Lindh how to have fun by example.
Focus and having fun skiing fast seem key to winning World Cup races, and last year Street and Lindh did both.
Lindh won the first World Cup race at Vail, Colo., last season, then finished second as Street won the next week at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. Lindh won the race after that. Street came within .02 seconds of winning the next one, then finished first in each of the last five races of the season in Italy, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and again in Italy, four times on mountains she had never skied before. Street and Lindh won eight of the nine races last season, and while Street finished first in the downhill standings, Lindh was second.
STREET'S domination of World Cup downhill is a little like someone from Switzerland or Austria leading the National Basketball Association in scoring. Ski racing is a large part of the culture of Alpine countries, and the tiniest part of American culture. Ski racers are national heroes in many European countries, though hardly recognized in the United States unless it's an Olympic year.
Still, Street's personality and overwhelming success have attracted the attention of sportswear giant Nike, which ironically makes no skiing gear whatsoever. (She wears Nike shoes and clothing for cross-training.) Street made an estimated half million dollars from endorsement deals last year, and could double that in 1996.
Her message, she says, is to make sure that as many children as possible get the kind of opportunities in sports she's gotten. She especially wants to see that girls get the kind of encouragement boys have typically received.
''Girls get the message ... that they should be pretty objects instead of active beings,'' she says. She wants to change that view. ''That doesn't mean a girl can't be feminine and enjoy her appearance,'' she adds, ''but she should also be able to hit 80 miles per hour on skis if she wants to.''