The best ski racer in United States history has launched what may be his last season of competition. Three-time World Cup champion Phil Mahre enters this Olympic winter voicing such thoughts as "I think more of retirement every day" and "It's time to move on and pursue something else in life."
Mahre can sound a bit tired of ski racing, of coping with impossible travel schedules, of the perennial politics that decide who is an Olympic "amateur" and who is not. But neither his competitors nor knowledgeable observers are much fooled.
Only three men have won the World Cup three times -- Sweden's great Ingemar Stenmark (1976-78), Gustavo Thoeni of Italy (1971-73), and Mahre (1981-83). But Thoeni also won it a fourth time (1975) which makes him the record holder. And if Phil Mahre is anything, he is one of the fiercest competitors in sports today.
"The only thing that would change my mind about maybe retiring would be whether I'd win another World Cup or not," he concedes. "If I were to win a fourth one, there might be a temptation to come back and try for a fifth. It's just [that] I've been in the sport a long time."
Meanwhile, lack of sufficient pre-season training appears to have taken its toll in Mahre's early World Cup results this winter. Unlike the rest of the US team, Phil and his twin brother, Steve, do not ski and train seriously during the summer -- which helps to explain why after the first six events in Yugoslavia, France, Switzerland, and Italy, Phil stood in only 42nd place.
Phil said he was "skiing like a beginner" and needed more training, especially in giant slalom. So after consulting with the coaching staff, he and Steve (who has done a bit better and stands 23rd) have returned to the Western United States, where snow is currently more plentiful than in Europe. The thinking behind this move was that additional on-snow training would be more beneficial than finishing the-Christmas European races, where Phil appeared to have little chance of accumulating more World Cup points considering both the events being contested and his present form. Mahre's focus now appears to be the important January series of World Cup races followed by the Winter Olympics.
Slow starts are nothing new for Mahre; last season he didn't win a race until the circuit hit the United States in March, although high finishes and combined event points had already set him up by then for his eventual cup win. And despite his relatively poor results to date this season, he insists that he started out in stronger physical shape than a year ago.
Mahre, now 26, says his growing thoughts of retirement reflect the "changing priorities" of a family man who is "getting older." His wife, Holly, is expecting their second child in February, which means that the family will not accompany him on the circuit this season, a support that has seemed important to him in the past.
Is this sense of winding down a career likely to dull the sharp competitive edge needed to win a fourth cup? And what about that elusive Olympic gold medal , the reward of only one race, but a race that most of the world recognizes as the true test of a champion? Will Phil, who says he approaches an Olympic race just like any other, be ready for the big test at Sarajevo in February?
The best clue rests in Mahre's racing history itself. Invariably he has done what he had to do to excel. He came back from a leg fracture in 1979 to win a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic slalom, plus the World Championship combined title (highest downhill and slalom finishes) and third place for the second time in the World Cup series.
Then, when World Cup rules were altered to favor racers who skied in all events rather than just their specialities, Mahre worked hard, though in limited spurts, on his downhill skills.The great slalom skier Stenmark, on the other hand, chose not to race downhill, a dangerous, speed-demanding race he has made no secret of disliking.
The end result has been Mahre's winning the last three World Cups -- not only on the strength of high finishes in different disciplines, but by winning his share of major individual races as well. (Last season, Mahre was first in World Cup giant slalom standings -- Stenmark's best event -- and in 1982 he won both the giant slalom and slalom titles.) Meanwhile, he has finished as high as fifth in World Cup downhills and wound up last season the 18th best downhiller on the circuit.
Moreover, he has done it his own way, refusing to race in a newly devised World Cup event, the super giant slalom, which he considers bogus but which could give him vital World Cup points.
But Mahre appears deadly serious when he says that neither World Cups nor Olympic medals are the goals he shoots at. "Just to be competitive" in each race he enters is the only goal that counts, he says. "Just to win, that's all there is to it. I don't see other goals."
It's that philosophy, he adds, that allows him and Steve, 1982 World Championship gold medalist in giant slalom, to compete so fiercely yet support each other in race after race without a trace of jealousy.
"As long as I'm competitive, then I've got nothing to be unhappy about," says Phil, who grew up on his family's ski area in White Pass, Wash. "If your brother beats you, then on that day he's better than you, and it's the same as someone who's not your brother.
Enough said about what motivates the outspoken World Cup champion. What has irked him obviously has been the "ridiculous" way the amateur code is sometimes interpreted by Olympic officials. Mahre has vociferously opposed allowing Stenmark to compete at Sarajevo, saying that when the Swedish star decided to negotiate his own commercial contracts after the 1980 Olympics, "he elected not to race in the Olympics but to get rich." [It now appears Stenmark will not be allowed to race in the Olympics, unless Olympic officials override that decision by the International Ski Federation (FIS)].
Mahre estimates that "in the course of three years Stenmark has made at least amateurism no longer exists and a new Olympic code must be written. Eventually, he says, world class ski racing will be as openly professional as tennis is today.