Phil Mahre launches another bid this week for the big prize that has so far eludedhim: the World Cup of skiing. The best skier the United States has ever produced feels he has a good shot at it, too -- which partly explains why he banished thoughts of retirement after winning an Olympic silver medal last winter.
"I don't really feel I have reached my full potential yet." Mahre said the other day while finishing up training at Killington, Vt., before heading for Europe with the rest of the US National Team for the World Cup competition, which begins Friday at Val d'Isere, France.
"I think I can do better than I have done so far," he added. "Also, I still enjoy it. I still love the sport."
The American public's obsession with the Olympics in individual sports like skiing tends to distort the importance of a few races every four years, but those involved don't see it quite the same way. To most of them, while the Olympics are naturally very big, the World Cup is still the ultimate goal.
"To skiers it is more important," Mahre said. "There are 20 or 30 races, and you know if you ski consistently well, you're going to place well. In the Olympics, too many things are beyond your control. You can have a bad day, somebody who hasn't done much all year can suddenly get hot, or you can just run into bad luck, like losing a ski. It's a one-day event, so all you can say is, 'If it happens, it happens.' The World Cup is a better test of true ability. It's more of a championship."
Mahre's record in this competition is by far the best of any American skier in history. He has won seven World Cup races and has finished second in the overall standings once (1978) and third twice (1979 and 1980). He appeared to have a great chance to win the '79 competition, in fact, when a broken ankle in a World Cup event at Lake placid prevented him from completing the season.
Phil returned to Lake Placid a year later, of course, to win his silver medal behind the great Ingemar Stenmark in the Olympic slalom. His finish matched the best previous Olympic effort by any American male ski racer, Alpine or Nordic (Billy Kidd in the 1964 slalom and Bill Koch in a 1976 cross-country race won the only previous silvers) but even that wasn't completely satisfying to him.
In fact, when asked if missing out on the World Cup in 1979 had been his biggest disappointment in skiing, Phil replied:
"It's hard to say. There have been other disappointments too. Even the silver medal. It was a big achievement, but in a way it was a disappointment also. It's been said that the worst places to finish in the Olympics are fourth and second. I can understand that."
The thing is, Mahre had a chance to win that race. Hyped up by the home environment and all the publicity surrounding the event, Phil charged through a brilliant first run to post the fastest time of the day. But STenmark, skiing first the next day, put the pressure on with a flawless second run. Mahre went for broke in his second effort, but he couldn't maintain complete control -- hitting a gate shortly after the start, being forced to steady another time in midcourse, and eventually losing enough time that he had to settle for second place.
"I know I made some mistakes that cost me time," I recalled. "But you can't look back. There's always another race."
Mahre actually did win a gold medal at Lake Placid, but it was in the Alpine Combined -- a competition recognized by the International Ski Federation but not as an Olympic event. This doesn't seem to bother him, though, and in fact he too questions whether it should be one.
"For a long time, very few guys were involved," he said in reference to the increasing specialization by downhill and slalom skiers "There have been more doing both lately,but who knows how long this will last?"
Phil and his twin brother, steve, are the middle children of nine in a family that used to make up more than half the permanent population of the tiny community of White Pass, Wash., where they grew up. Their father, Dave, is assistant manager of the local ski area, and all nine children learned the sport at an early age, but it was always the twins who showed the most promise.
By the time they were 8 years old, they were racing; by age 13 or so they were the top junior skiers in the Pacific Northwest; and since age 15 both have been on the national team. For a long time they were fairly close in terms of ability and results, and although Phil has pulled ahead in recent years, he still credits their brother vs. brother competition with providing the spark for his success.
"Sometimes in races when we were young, there was nobody else close to us," he recalled. "The next skier would be like five seconds behind. But we always had to battle each other for first place. We always had a higher goal to push for.
"A lot of kids, if they're better than the competition, will ski well enough to win, but not push for more. I always had to push, and I think that's a big factor in my success."
Even though he cites his one edge, Phil says he is at a loss to explain why there haven't been at least one or two other young US skiers moving toward the top level.
"I just don't know," he said. "It seemed so easy to go from the top 60 or so to the top 15. It's really frustrating for me to see some of these kids struggle and struggle to do it."
But new men's coach Konrad Rickenbach thinks he knows at least part of the reason.
"Skiing is a prestige sport," he said. "I see too many young skiers who work hard to get on the team, but once they've done that, they act as though they've reached their goal.
"Phil has talent, of course. He's very athletic on his skis. But also he's great competitor, and he has the right approach to the game. Despite all his success, he never stops working hard to get even better."
As for the World Cup, Rickenbach thinks his star has a good shot at it this year, since the rules once again favor versatile skiers like Mahre and defending champion Andreas Wenzel of Liechtenstein over specialists like Stenmark. And Phil, of course, agrees.
"There are a lot of people who can score points in the slalom races," he said. "In the giant slalom, I was skiing with Stenmark at the end of last season, and I think you'll see more people doing that this winter. It should be close, and in the end the combined should definitely be a factor."
Mahre says he plans to ski at least through 1981-82, when world championships will be held as usual at the midway point between olympics. And what then? Will he hang in there for another shot at Olympic gold at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984?
Bascially still a small-town guy, Phil has never been enamored of the rat-race existence of world class skiers -- constantly on the go for half the year, mostly in Europe, living out of a suitcase, etc. Also, he isn't one of those who craves the limelight -- and in fact prefers the idea of being Phil Mahre, the person, rather than Phil Mahre, the big skiing star. But he realizes full well that despite all there for another shot at Olympic gold at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984?
Bascially still a small-town guy, Phil has never been enamored of the rat-race existence of world class skiers -- constantly on the go for half the year, mostly in Europe, living out of a suitcase, etc. Also, he isn't one of those who craves the limelight -- and in fact prefers the idea of being Phil Mahre, the person, rather than Phil Mahre, the big skiing star. But he realizes full well that despite all this, the lure of the Winter Games will get stronger as the time draws closer.
"It's just too early to say right now," he replied. "By then it will be only two years away, and we'll see how In feel. I'll only be 26 in 1984, so who knows. If I still enjoy it, I many well still be competiting."