Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden is the greatest slalom and giant slalom skier in history. But he doesn't race downhill. America's Phil Mahre does. Thus it is that Mahre has been able to virtually clinch his third straight World Cup title, which goes to the world's best all-around skier.
Until Monday, the native of Yakima, Wash., needed all the points he could accumulate in downhills to hold off the charging Stenmark.But then, in his best effort of the season, Mahre won the giant slalom and gave himself what appears to be an insurmountable lead in the overall standings. Two years earlier, in another battle with Stenmark, Phil had come to Aspen and left with a giant slalom win en route to the World Cup title.
Given the current standings, Stenmark could only catch his rival if he raced and finished in the top 15 of Saturday's downhill finale at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. Yet there is ''absolutely no chance'' that Stenmark will enter the event, according to one Swedish reporter.
Stenmark has attempted only two downhills in his World Cup career. He fell in training for the first one, sustaining a head injury, and skied so cautiously in the second he finished in 74th place. ''I don't like it,'' the quiet Swede said about downhill. ''It's too much gliding. I don't have time to train for it, and I think it's impossible to be the best in slalom, giant slalom, and downhill. I'm concentrating on slalom and giant slalom.''
Mahre, on the other hand, considers downhill a new challenge. ''I've accomplished a lot in slalom and giant slalom,'' he says, ''but I'd really like to win a downhill before I retire. You can't have a mental block about speed. That's the main thing about downhill. I'm not afraid of speed.''
Though Phil finished ninth in Sunday's downhill, he proved himself in the lightning-fast training runs during the week. A pattern of sunny days and freezing nights made the course ice hard, and with a 25 m.p.h. tailwind the racers flew down the course, just missing the course record. On one of the fastest days, Mahre was second.
''Phil's interesting,'' said Ken Read, a top Canadian downhiller. ''We watch him on videotape on the technical parts of the course. The downhill bug has gotten into him. I just hope it's not hurting his slalom and giant slalom.''
Before Monday's victory it appeared it had, because to that point he hadn't won a World Cup race all season. And since coming to the fore of international racing five years ago, he had never been shut out for an entire season.
Last year Phil took the time off from slalom and giant slalom training to race downhill, yet amazingly he still beat Stenmark at his own game, winning the year's slalom and giant slalom titles while wrapping up the overall title in January. He won six races, only once finishing less than third place against all the world's best skiers.
Still, it's Stenmark who has a seemingly unapproachable total of 73 career victories. Tied for second on the all-time list, with 24, are Austria's Franz Klammer and Italy's Gustav Thoeni. Klammer, the ageless Olympic gold medalist whose fame was secured with his hair-raising downhill run at the '76 Games, has been leading this year's Cup standings in that event.
Stenmark has won so many races, one might think they'd be blurred in memory. But, according to Steve Mahre, Phil's twin brother, Stenmark has a penchant for statistics that helps him keep his efforts mentally catalogued. ''He can tell you exactly how many first, second, and third places he's had,'' Steve says. ''I probably have a tenth as many wins as he does, yet I couldn't tell you how many wins I have. Phil and I race because we enjoy it.''
A crowd was gathered around the television in the lobby of the hotel where the Mahres were staying in Aspen. CBS was doing an in-depth portrait of the twins, but neither of them even glanced at the TV as they walked out the door to play basketball with other US Ski Team members in a local gym.
The Mahres, it seems, are about as unaffected as Todd Brooker is reckless. Brooker, the downhill winner at Aspen, is fast becoming a legend. He's heightened the definition of the term Kamikaze Canuck, which the Europeans gave to a pack of wild Canadians who successfully invaded the alpine downhill courses in the 1970s.
''Brooker runs about the same line as the other downhillers, but when he gets into trouble he doesn't fight to get back, he just lets the skis run,'' says Andreas Rauch, the US downhill coach. If Brooker needs to fight to stay on his skis, he can call upon extraordinary strength. Most consider him the strongest of all the downhillers.
Brooker electrified the crowd at Aspen last year with a run that people are still talking about. He flew off a bump, landed on one ski, and had his other foot somehow behind him and above his head. Spectators hid their eyes, expecting a fall, but he brought the ski back down, and courting disaster the rest of the way, still finished second.
If Brooker can win the downhill this weekend, he can pass Klammer and win the World Cup downhill title, which his countryman, Steve Podborski, won last year.