Mahre brothers call it quits after leaving mark on skiing world
Steve Mahre stood in the finish area of his last World Cup race, looking up the mountain for his twin brother Phil. He picked up his two-year-old daughter, her eyes lighting up as she snuggled into her father's arms. Soon Phil came into sight, with Steve urging him on to the finish.
Phil finished 18th and Steve ninth, but on this day the numbers really didn't matter, for in a few moments Phil had his wife by his side, his daughter on his back, and his 17-day-old son in his arms. This day, that was the victory. For after a decade of international ski racing, the Mahre brothers are turning from the rigors of constant travel to the joys of family life.
They've earned it. The public knows of the Olympic gold and silver medals Phil and Steve won last month in Sarajevo. The public also knew of Phil's silver medal in 1980. But the skiing world has known them as two of the world's best racers for the last eight years.
''Phil was born four minutes ahead of me,'' Steve says, ''and I've been chasing him ever since.''
The chase started on the slopes of White Pass, Wash., where their father manages a small ski area. Now after skiing all of the world's most glamorous resorts so many times, they're returning to Yakima, Wash., where they'll again occasionally be able to ski that same White Pass area where they spent their childhood chasing each other down the hill and through bamboo poles.
The twins burst on the World Cup scene in the 1976-77 season after skiing without any particular success at the Innsbruck Olympics the previous winter. In December, 1976, Phil won a giant slalom at Val d'Isere, France. Two months later , he won a World Cup slalom in Sun Valley, Idaho, with Steve coming in third. For the first time in many years, the European skiing establishment had an American threat to worry about.
The concern turned out to be justified - for despite their reputation for relaxed training in the summer (they raced motocross competitively and are avid water-skiers), the Mahres worked at least as hard as anyone else during the season, often sidestepping up the mountain on dark winter mornings to run gates before the lifts opened. And the hard work eventually paid off.
In 1978, when they got the Europeans on American snow again, Phil and Steve won on successive days at Stratton Mountain, Vt. Phil went on that year to finish second in the overall standings to his career-long rival, Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.
In 1979 things looked even brighter. Changes in the point-scoring system gave the edge to more versatile skiers like Mahre, who also races the downhill, rather than specialists like Stenmark, who does not. But at Lake Placid, while closing in on his first overall title and also looking ahead toward the next year's Olympics at the same site, Phil hooked a tip on one of those thousands of gates (bamboo poles) he runs each year, sustaining a serious leg injury that ended his season. The Olympics, only a year away, seemed out of reach, and in fact his entire skiing career was in doubt.
But Phil's attitude was positive. He joked that this was the only way he could get get some rest. Then when it was time to do so, he worked harder than ever to get back in shape for the Olympic year. It paid off, too, as he took the slalom silver at Lake Placid and went on to finish third in the World Cup standings.
The next winter both twins were so hot that it sometimes seemed if Phil didn't win, Steve did. Coming down to the end of the season, Phil had to finish first or second in a slalom at Borovetz, Bulgaria to clinch that elusive first World Cup overall title. He would have, but he finished third because Steve beat him.
The Europeans were aghast. ''They couldn't understand why a brother would keep his brother from winning the World Cup,'' Phil said, ''but I would never pull off the course to let him win, and he would never do the same, either.''
Phil clinched the title the next week, though, to give the story a happy ending, while Steve came in fourth overall.
In 1981-82, Phil successfully defended his World Cup championship, becoming the first racer to clinch the title in January, with Stenmark eventually coming in second and Steve third. Steve upstaged his brother, though, at the 1982 world championships, winning the giant slalom to become the first American male ever to earn a skiing gold medal in Olympic or world championship competition.
Stenmark is generally considered the greatest slalom and giant slalom skier in history. And yet, despite the distraction of also racing downhill, Phil beat the great Swede at his own game in that 1981-82 season, winning both the slalom and giant slalom titles as well as the overall crown.
Last year, Phil hadn't won a single race when the circuit came to America in the spring, but his willingness to race flat out at speeds above 80 m.p.h. in the downhill had kept him in the running for a third consecutive title anyway. He eventually got it, too, by winning his last three giant slaloms of the year.
Phil amazes the downhillers because he's the only skier who races the event without training for it. He just puts on the skis and runs it - full tilt. The next day he puts on his shorter giant slalom and slalom skis and wins races. Only a handful of skiers have been able to do this competitively, and the youngest of them, Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen, seems sure to beat the perennially tough Stenmark for this year's overall title.
Except for their big day at Sarajevo, this has been a bad year for the Mahres on the World Cup circuit: Phil is 11th and Steve 43rd in the standings.
''The World Cup circuit just isn't the place to raise a family,'' Phil said.
Steve's wife, Debbie, and his daughter, Ginger, traveled with him the last two years, while Phil's wife, Holly, was forced to stay at home this year, expecting their second child. She gave birth to Alexander an hour before the Olympic slalom, and later Phil touched the hearts of worldwide TV viewers when tears filled his eyes and his voice broke while trying to explain how he longed to be with them.
In that Olympic slalom, Steve led after the first run, but Phil, racing ahead of him on the second run, took the lead. Phil stopped, grabbed a walkie-talkie, and radioed up to Steve with instructions on how to ski the course - telling his brother, in other words, how to ski to beat him for the gold medal.
Steve went all out, but caught an edge and lost just enough time that he he finished two tenths a second behind Phil.
''We have a saying,'' Steve said: ''Keep it in the family.'' They certainly did on that day. And both twins have certainly earned the opportunity they're going to take now to spend more time with their own families in the years ahead.