A Two-Way Street To Recovery

Retrace Athlete Picabo Street's Path To Healing

Once 28-year-old Olympic skier Picabo Street could hardly imagine any physical limits. Following a tragic injury to her knee in the 1998 Olympics, she astounded crowds by taking home the gold.

But as 48 Hours Correspondent Susan Spencer reports, a subsequent car accident left her with a new physical obstacle. And along with the devastating experience, she found more than a new challenge: a new friend.

"You play hard; you pay hard....It was my dream come true, what I had always dreamt of all my life," says Street.

For Picabo Street, that dream became a reality as she dashed down the slopes of Nagano to win a gold medal. In just a few moments, the woman with the unusual name became an international icon.

And cheering her on was Dr. Richard Steadman, the surgeon who'd put her knee back together just a year before. "She's shown that she can come back from almost anything," he says.

But only a month later, a truly horrific crash left both her legs severely mangled. Suddenly Street faced a new struggle, attacking it with the same fierce determination that served her on the slopes.

"It's like the same thing with fear," she says. You just replace it with the task at hand."

One day, by a remarkable coincidence, the person sitting next to her for a physical therapy treatment was a young woman who knew all about Street's determination. They had never met, but Street had already begun to change the life of 32-year-old Rebecca Olivares.

Inspired by watching Street's Olympic victory, Olivares came to Dr. Steadman's clinic in Vail, Colo., for the operation she hoped would change her life.

A year and a half before, Olivares had been leading an active life. She'd been a local news anchor and then a management consultant. But after a knee operation, she developed, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), a pain that lasts well after the injury that caused it has healed. Then the pain spread to both her legs.

At the Pain Center at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Dr. Li Lin Lu had offered her pain management. This meant a regimen of therapy, drugs and surgical procedures, including electrical stimulation applied directly to her spine. "What you try to do is get someone to the point where the pain is not their main focus," says Dr. Lu.

For more than temporary relief, though, she needed another knee operation, doctors said. The problem was that no surgeon would do it for fear of aggravating the RSD.

"It was all gloom and doom," Olivares remembers. "Everyone said, 'There's nothing we can doÂ….This is as good as it gets.' No one would touch my legs, and so Steadman was willing to."

But for both Street and Olivares, real success proved elusive. A week after she returned home to Texas, Olivares was hurt in a freak car accident. The injury, to her neck, sent the RSD into overdrive. So she faced another round of surgical procedures, marking the 26th in a yer.

And after six months of steady progress, Street wrenched her knee while getting out of a car, sending her in for another operation. "I just cried like a little kid," she says.

For the year that 48 Hours followed their improvement, Street and Olivares were kept informed about one another's progress. Soon they began checking up on each other.

Olivares' doctors weren't able to do as much as they had hoped, however. Dr. Lu confessed that the situation seemed dismal. And with the doctors stumped, Olivares and Street came up with their own bold plan of attack: to retreat to a rehabilitative health spa in Arizona.

For two years, Olivares had been walking on crutches. Then with Street cheering her on, she suddenly found the strength to scale a climbing wall.

"It definitely hurt going up there," says Olivares. "I don't think I've ever pushed myself that strong. But there was a transformation for a few minutes there. I wanted to conquer that wall,...RSD and all."

"It confirmed for me the power the mind can do and the power of faith, more than any medical procedures. And it was all thanks to the Pic," Olivares adds.

Street, who hopes to be skiing by October, says inspiration is a two-way street. "This happened to me so that I could meet Rebecca. I broke my leg and blew my right knee out so that I could meet Rebecca Olivares and be blessed with a friendship that's just unconditional and powerful," says Street.

Since returning from the spa in January, Olivares has undergone several more surgeries for her RSD. But she remains determined. "What it has done for me is that I know, even though there's no cure for RSD, and that I will be in pain for the rest of my life, there's still no doubt in my mind that I'm gonna beat this thing."