It's hard to imagine any athlete who exudes more self-confidence, more personal resourcefulness, than Phil Mahre, the former World Cup ski racing champion and Olympic gold medalist. And although it's not quite as immediately visible and hard-edged, the same can be said of his 31-year-old twin brother, Steve. Together they won 36 World Cup races, plus three Olympic and two world championship medals. By the time they retired from competition in 1984, they had established themselves beyond any question as the greatest ski racers the United States has ever produced.
So it's not hard to understand why the promoters of US pro ski racing became rapturous when the Mahres announced they would come out of retirement to race on their circuit this season. Pro ski racing normally gets a bit less media exposure than tiddlywinks. It's tough enough to recognize, let alone spell, the names of the unknown Europeans who have won the US pro skiing championships for as long as anyone can remember.
Suddenly, the twins from Yakima, Wash., are back in ski-racing harness, and the press has rediscovered pro ski racing. At last, familiar names of one syllable for whom people can cheer and who can also actually win!
The whole thing is a turnaround for the Mahres, who pooh-poohed the pro circuit for years as not worthy of comparison to the challenge of world-class ``amateur'' racing. So with not a great deal of training for the pro format - many runs over short, head-to-head dual courses with six-foot bumps set in them, winners advancing to meet other winners - the brothers won two of their first four races. This past weekend at the Nashoba Valley ski area here, Steve was third in the $30,000 slalom, behind Swedes Jorgen Sundquist and last year's pro tour winner, Joakim Wallner, who beat Phil in the round of eight. A week earlier, Phil won the slalom at Waterville Valley, N.H., and prior to that Steve won the opening slalom of the season at Park City, Utah.
What has made the Mahres put on hold two of their first loves - flag football in the Yakima adult league and pro auto racing - and return to ski racing?
Money, of course. After the demise of their ski clothing line, they are reported to have substantial debts. And in the tough world of auto racing, Phil acknowledges that they've found it hard to acquire a sponsor. He says by reaffirming their presence in skiing they hope to awaken the interest of car-racing sponsors.
They certainly have interested ski-racing sponsors. Their sponsorship deal along with prize winnings, appearances, endorsements, etc., should bring the twins a potential $400,000 this year. Phil says that's a cut in pay from what he made as an ``amateur.'' But it's a start.
And what do they think of pro skiing now? Says Phil: ``My expectations of the pro circuit are about where they were when I was an amateur. I'm not skiing at the top of my form, and I'm winning. Maybe pro and World Cup skiing are like the (now defunct) United States Football League and the National Football League. The pros have a different format and product. But it's viable. It's going to be a fun and interesting season. ... I don't think [changing from racing against the clock to shorter head-to-head races] is that big an adjustment.''
Says Steve about his victory at Park City after training only three days in slalom, two in giant slalom: ``I don't think there was any personal satisfaction in winning a World Cup race that was bigger than going out and ... skiing up to my expectations and capabilities.''
``We told [our sponsors] if we're not winning early, we'll win eventually,'' says Phil. We're not losers; we're winners. We'll figure out a way to win, do whatever it takes - training eight hours a day instead of four hours, whatever. ... Once a competitor, always a competitor. The comeback felt like I never left.''
Steve, on developing more winning US ski racers: ``Somehow, we've got to get the expense of skiing down. We lose so many truly great athletes to other sports because they just can't afford it. ... Then we've got to try to keep [years of disciplined training] interesting.''
Phil lays almost everything to inner resourcefulness, almost nothing to outside help. ``We had no real technical coaching until we made the US Ski Team [at age 16]. Then we had the best. ... I think now too many kids are given and expect too much. ... A kid is a winner before he goes to a coach. ... You don't get to the top by coming off the hill and taking a nap,'' which is what he says some US Ski Team racers did when he was there.
Both twins want to be like their ski area operator dad in not ``pushing'' their own children but letting them make their own decisions. Steve has two children and Phil three, including four-year-old Alex, who, he says, has skied since he was 22 months, has already won trophies, water skis, and is ``all brawn.''
On hearing that most of their rivals planned to relax over the holidays before the races resume in California in early January, Steve said: ``I love to hear you guys are going to take it easy, because once the ski season starts, I expect to be on the slope until the next event.''
On getting to the top, Phil says: ``Easy. That's where you wanted to go. Staying there is what's hard. Only one place to go, and that's down. And if you're a competitor, you won't let that happen.''