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Ski training takes back-to-basics approach under Mahre brothers

I am sliding down Pack Saddle Bowl behind Steve Mahre, one half of the Mahre twins, the greatest ski racing duo in US history. First, I am on one ski, then on the other, now leaning forward, now leaning back. The idea of taking ski racing lessons from the Mahres sounded ``awesome,'' to quote one teen-age son -- the kind of experience you can casually mention in a conversation just to watch people's eyebrows elevate. (``I was running gates with the Mahre brothers the other day, and Phil was saying . . . '') I couldn't wait.

But hopping along behind Steve, I am suddenly ``de-awed.'' I have forgotten who is putting me through this alpine hopscotch act. Instead, I am a parka-clad bundle of concentration.

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``He wants to know what it feels like to stand on just the ``outside ski.'' That's the uphill one! And turn besides? I'll tell him what it feels like. It feels like I'm going to (SPLAT!) fall.''

Steve is grinning. Everyone is grinning, even me. I begin to understand what the Mahres are up to. They are going back to basics as they launch their new week-long ``training centers'' for all levels of skiers here. They are teaching balance, something that may seem obsolete with today's sophisticated equipment, not to mention dull when it's so much more fun to cruise down intermediate trails.

``Sometimes you find the mistakes people make go back to when they were beginning skiers,'' says Steve. So he and Phil in their first year of retirement from competition welcome snowplowing Texans, who blanket this resort, as well as experienced citizen racers bent on improving. The only prerequisites are a pile of cash (a week of training and lodging starts at $662) and a willingness to spend several days working on US Ski Team training exercises developed by Alpine Director Harald Schoenhaar. Right now, you don't even get on a race course until the third day.

Any program that asks people to spend much of their vacation week not cruising under the Colorado sun nor even running gates but doing exercises -- and paying big bucks for the privilege -- normally would rank in popularity with cleaning up the cafeteria. Any program but one run by Olympic and World Cup stars Phil and Steve Mahre, that is.

With the growth of recreational ski racing, various adult programs have blossomed across the country. To stay competitive, the Mahres eventually might have to modify their format. But they and Schoenhaar have clearly structured a sequential approach to better ski and racing technique. Trained instructors conduct the program, which includes daily video taping sessions and at least one on- and off-slope session with either Phil or Steve.

``For me this is more rewarding than coaching at the international level,'' says Steve. ``Young ski racers figure they made the ski team doing what they're doing so why should they change.'' But he finds it ``fun'' to watch the determination of recreational skiers trying to master a new exercise.

He also notes there is more to being a good ski racer than mastering technique. ``Number one, a kid has to be able to let his skis `go.' I don't think you can teach that -- speed. Look at [Olympic downhill gold medalist] Billy Johnson.''

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After a session on the hill and a training race (our instructor, Russ Strickler, beats Steve), Steve sits down and answers questions with typical Mahre candor.

On money demands by US Ski Team racers and trying to balance international racing with a college education: ``I myself wasn't in the sport for money. Inside I wanted to be the best.'' (Both Mahres were better paid for their racing than any other US ski racer before them, however, and with several ski-related ventures they continue to cash in on their racing success.)

``If Billy Johnson wants to keep 80 percent of his contracts [and leave the ski team 20 percent], I say okay; when it comes time for travel arrangements and costs, you pay 80 percent and [the team will] pay 20 percent.

``You can't ski [World Cup] and go to college. Anybody who says I'm going to college and also will be a great ski racer is kidding himself. For the first six years I was where [the team] told me to be. The last four years Phil and I did our own thing.''

On mental attitude: ``You can't say, `Hey, it's foggy; I can't ski today.' You just have to turn that around. `I can do that; it's foggy for everybody else too.' Phil and I found that [for us] to be best, all the foreign culture, food, and race courses [couldn't] make any difference.''

On not being envious of a successful brother but supporting him totally: ``If Phil hadn't been there I would have just done enough to win. That isn't enough.'' (Steve says that he would be temperamentally unsuited for big success in the dual racing format of the pros because he would ski only hard enough to beat his immediate opponent, and that wouldn't work.)

``The only time I remember anything resembling envy was when I retired the first time around 1976. Phil had recovered from injuries and won the first World Cup race of 1977. Phil was winning, and I was saying, `Why him?' Then he called me, and I said, `I gotta go back.'

``I think Phil was a little more mature than me. [Steve is the younger by four minutes.] He was more mentally tough until 1980. Then I felt I could beat anyone . . . We fought only once, when we were about 11 years old.''

As for the future, the twins who both have families, are writing a book, promoting skis and skiwear, and hoping to expand their training centers to other regions. Steve would ``love to race cars'' and hopes to build a house with Phil every three years, ``just to keep our hand in.''

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