Steve Pickell took up swimming at the age of eight and became seriously invested in the sport upon watching the 1968 Summer Olympics and witnessing Elaine Tanner's medal-winning feats. He joined the national team five years later and made his debut at the 1973 World Championships. His first major international medals came a year later, at the Commonwealth Games, when he won gold as a member of the 4×100 metre medley relay, alongside Bill Mahony, Brian Phillips, and Bruce Robertson, and silver in the 100 metre backstroke, behind Mark Tonelli of Australia. He attended the 1975 World Championships and, by the time of the 1976 Summer Olympics, had set three national and two Commonwealth records. At the Games he captured silver in the 4×100 m medley relay with Robertson, Clay Evans, Gary MacDonald, and Graham Smith. One day prior, however, he had caused the Canadians (Steve Badger, James Hett, and Bill Sawchuk) to be disqualified from the 4×200 m freestyle relay due to a false start. He was also eliminated in the semifinals of the 100 m backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle events.
Pickell entered the University of Southern California on an athletic scholarship after the Games, but continued to compete internationally for Canada. He missed the 1978 Commonwealth Games due to a shoulder injury sustained while playing water polo for USC, but did make it to the 1979 Pan American Games, where he took silver in the 4×100 m medley relay (alongside Sawchuk, Smith, and the non-Olympian Dan Thompson) and bronze in the 100 m backstroke. He was selected to represent his nation again at the 1980 Summer Olympics, but stayed home when Canada joined the boycott of those Games. Nagging injuries caused him to retire soon after and, since his graduation from USC, he has worked in insurance and coached at the high school and club levels.