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- February 15, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 6
The First American Ever to Win Skiing's Coveted World Cup Is About to Do It Again
It should not come as a surprise that ski racer Phil Mahre has no fear of flying. Only hours before relating this dream over Wiener schnitzel and apple cider, he himself was hurtling toward a valley between two mountains, banking and schussing at breakneck speeds. He was making the awesome Hahnenkamm downhill run in Kitzbühel, Austria, one of the prestigious Alpine races in World Cup competition. There is a drop coming out of the first left turn estimated at 70 degrees. The drop and the momentum at 60 mph cause skiers to "take air," flying for up to 150 feet down the mountain a yard above the ground. The run isn't virgin powder, either; it's been hosed down with fire-fighting equipment and stomped smooth by hundreds of Austrian militiamen. Overnight it turns into a rock-hard ice-blue glacier. As Mahre entered the long traverse, hit a flat, then surged for the descent to the finish line, he was a gray blur in the skier's tuck—arms in, poles back, head down. The skis were clattering like windblown shutters, his ankles, knees and thighs absorbing jackhammer vibrations through his boots. At the end, he was moving close to 80 mph.
And at that he finished 14th. But Mahre was not after a downhill title: He was pursuing the overall World Cup championship. Three events make up World Cup competition: downhill, slalom and giant slalom. Because there are separate points and championship titles awarded for each of those distinctly demanding events, many skiers have specialized, racing slaloms or downhills but not both. Some skiers rely on their prowess in the slaloms to rack up enough points to win the overall cup. Mahre is only an above-average downhiller, but he is a master at slalom—and overall a young man of uncommon drive. "I never raced downhill until four years ago," he says. "Guys give up slalom and GS for downhill because it's easier, technically less exacting. I felt that to win the overall, a skier should have to run downhill because the World Cup is not about being the best specialist—it's about being the best all-around skier in the world."
Right now, from Vail to Val d'lsère, there is no doubt that Mahre, 24, is just that in his eighth World Cup season. Last year he did what once seemed impossible: He became the first American ever to win the cup in its 15-year history, ending the hegemony of men like France's Jean-Claude Killy, Austria's Karl Schranz and Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark—all born to European slopes. Mahre edged out Stenmark by six points at the very end of the December-through-March competition. This year he apparently will take the cup in a rout. As of last week he had all but clinched it, with about half the 30-odd meets still to run. Says Erik Steinberg, one of the U.S. ski team coaches: "Philip is truly a three-event skier. He is pleasing all the purists." Stenmark agrees: "Phil is very good each time. He never makes a bad race. He's the one to beat."
Mahre's success this season—he has finished no worse than third in any slalom event so far—surprises even him. "It's been phenomenal," he says. "The confidence and experience from winning last year helps, sure. But I've seen guys here in Europe win it all and then fall apart the next season. I'm fortunate I'm from the U.S. Americans hear 'World Cup' and ask, 'What's that? Who's he?' That takes the pressure off."
Not entirely. "Attitude in the starting gate can be the margin of difference," says U.S. head men's coach Konrad Rickenbach. "Racing at Philip's level is 80 percent mental, and he is very strong mentally. He knows what it takes to win." More succinctly, Coach Steinberg observes: "When it comes to racing, Philip takes no prisoners."
Mahre has one rival in particular whom he cannot afford to ignore. A near-perfect physical, intellectual and temperamental double, his twin, Steve, is only four minutes younger and often just a few hundredths of a second behind at the finish. In the cup last year, Steve finished fourth overall. At Cortina in December, he was first in the slalom, .08 second ahead of Phil, marking the first time that Americans, let alone brothers or twins, finished 1-2 in any cup race. Steve defers to his brother not at all. "Every race I enter," he says, "I want to win."
The fifth and sixth of nine skiing children of Dave Mahre, an assistant manager of a ski resort in White Pass, Wash., Phil and Steve hit the slopes when they were 6. (The Mahre children range from 31 to 9 years old. Four are married, and three still live at home. All live within 90 minutes of one another. Paul, 20, hopes to make the World Cup team.) The twins practiced together constantly, developing an unorthodox, slashing style. "We're a lot more aggressive than the Europeans," says Steve. "We ski harder. Instead of being precise, we just go for it. A lot of racers just want to get all the way down, and that can mean a second or two. We go straighter at the gates, cut closer to them. We take those chances."
Phil and Steve work together particularly closely on the inspection of race runs. All the contestants walk down the slope, tediously memorizing every bump, roll and change in texture, the plane of every slalom gate, the best "line" to the finish. They ski too fast to think during the race, and in "flat" shadowless light, the feel of an edge and the memory of the inspection may be all that separates a night of celebration from a year in physical therapy. The Mahre who runs first immediately radios to his twin at the starting gate to advise him of tricky spots and surprises. "We think so much alike," says Phil, "that when I tell Steve something he understands exactly what I mean."
The presence of a brother also eases the feelings of alienation and loneliness other skiers experience on the grueling four-month circuit. The 10 skiers, four coaches and equipment specialists on the current U.S. team live like nomads, spending 12 to 20 hours in their vans and four-wheel-drive vehicles as they move from one race site to another, often through fog, snow and dark. "You can lose touch with the outside world," says Steve. "You might get the Herald Tribune once in a while and check football scores, but that's about it." Phil is more blunt. "I could do without the travel." Still, he is luckier than Steve in one respect: His girlfriend, Holly Kaiser, has been on the road with him much of this season. She interrupted her studies in graphic design at Arizona State University near Phoenix. Steve's wife, Debbie, stayed behind in Washington with their daughter, Ginger, who was born Dec. 29, four days before Steve had to return to Europe after the Christmas break.
There is little time for fun in any case. The brothers awake at sunrise for breakfast with the team and slope inspection. Phil and Steve have all their meals together, and attend evening team meetings to review races on video tape. "You could be out every night," Phil says, "but I've always been a homebody. I'd just as soon play cards, backgammon, listen to music or read a best-seller. If you partied before a race, then skied terribly, you'd be in trouble." Says Rickenbach: "The Mahres are a coach's dream."
Phil Mahre is a sponsor's dream as well. He is technically an amateur and still eligible for Olympic meets. But Mahre and other racers benefit from a system of indirect payments in which equipment manufacturers pay the team to use their products, and the team pays the players. "The word amateur is ridiculous and outdated," says Mahre, whose income is estimated to be in six figures. His Seattle-based ski supplier, K2, is getting its money's worth and more. "We've had so much free advertising," says Ed Chase, K2's "one-man pit crew," who has worked with the Mahres for the past six years. "Our racing program is a marketing tool. You can't take a picture of Phil without getting a bit of our skis in near his face." His Swedish colleague Stenmark turned pro in 1980 to lend his name to such diverse products as coffee, cars and ski gear, and his earnings reportedly soared to $1.5 million. Mahre would rather not take that route. "That's just how I am."
Phil and Steve learned hard work early. School was more than an hour's drive from their White Pass home, and only after finishing their homework—usually on the bus—were they allowed to night-ski under mercury-vapor lights. On nights the trails were closed to the public, Dave Mahre didn't let his twins use the ski lifts—he made them hike up the hill to ski down it. Says Phil: "We were brought up to believe you had to work if you wanted something."
Their love of sports was not confined to skiing. They both played football and pole-vaulted, developing muscular upper torsos that give them uncommon pushing power with their poles. They missed months of school at a time to compete abroad. Nonetheless Phil finished second and Steve fifth in their 1975 graduating class of 80. Phil had to drop out of competition for a total of 15 months with two broken legs. In his first race after the second injury, he won the giant slalom at the U.S. National Championships in Mission Ridge, Wash. in 1975.
In 1979 he was injured a third time, a multiple ankle fracture that required insertion of a metal plate and four screws. Then, during his drive toward a 1980 silver medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, his one-year marriage to high school sweetheart Paula Davis came apart. "He didn't talk about it, and there were times when he cried," Steve recalls. "But it was just one of those things that had to happen." "Some people," Coach Rickenbach says, "are very good at blocking things out of their minds. Phil has very good concentration."
When Mahre returns to Washington now, it's to hammer away at the spacious home he's building himself on 50 lush acres in a canyon near Yakima. Steve lives nearby, and the family homestead is an hour and a half away. By April Phil will be delighted to put four or five months and 5,000 miles between him and the cup circuit. "The fans have gotten on my nerves," he says, grimacing. "They're always wanting autographs and I'm actually sick and tired of it." He says he could retire—or turn pro—tomorrow and feel he has discharged his responsibility to his team, his sponsors and his country. "I don't have to win for anybody but myself. I guess I'm gifted. But I'm doing something I love, that's why I do it. Winning isn't everything to me."
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