The winter had been extraordinarily grim on the World Cup ski racing circuit—a killingly heavy schedule of races. rain in the Arlberg, rain in the Dolomites, race cancellations, despair over whether the lack of snow in the Western U.S. would allow any races to be held there at all. Morale on the U.S. squad was particularly low. Cindy Nelson, the Olympic bronze medal downhiller and women's team leader, had broken her ankle in January and predicted good performances by the male racers did not materialize. All in all, it was a wan and dispirited international troupe that wandered into Sun Valley last week—only to find that usually radiant place had been turned into a veritable ghost town by the snowless winter.
Then, in a few dazzling moments of racing, all that was turned around. Sun Valley suddenly beamed anew, the whole World Cup circus seemed revitalized. And for the first time in years, American fans found themselves cheering wildly over not one, but two young men who seem destined for stardom.
The Mahre twins—Phil and Steve, 19, of White Pass, Wash.—had arrived, with matched sunburst smiles and identical hell-for-leather skiing techniques that electrified everything around them. In a triumph probably unprecedented for brothers in ski race history—and certainly unique for identical twins—Phil finished first and Steve third in the slalom. Between them was the young Swede, Ingemar Stenmark, the 1976 World Cup winner and the apparently unbeatable leader once again this season.
To put the twins' feat in proper perspective: it was Phil's second World Cup victory in his second season of competition and no American man has ever won more than two races in an entire career. As for Steve, he did not even join the U.S. team until January and by last week had put in less snow time than an average hard-skiing weekend visitor to Great Gorge, N.J. It was, as U.S. Alpine director Hank Tauber said with immense understatement, "amazing."
The incipient stardom of the Mahres appears to promise a shot of new energy in the World Cup, and it is badly needed. An air of inevitability had crept into the men's 31-race series this bleak season. Stenmark, 20, skiing with his usual liquid power, had dominated the slalom, winning five straight races in January. The premier downhiller. Franz Klammer, 22, had continued his Olympic gold medal heroics by winning six of seven downhills—this despite the devastating fact that his 18-year-old brother Klaus had been paralyzed as a result of an accident in a downhill event last month in Austria. Heini Hemmi, 28, the Swiss gold medalist in the giant slalom, had pretty much had his way in that event.
When the races began at Sun Valley last Friday the competition for the overall title was between Klammer with 195 points and Stenmark with 194, trailed by Klaus Heidegger, an Austrian newcomer, with 184. But the closeness of the standings was misleading; Klammer had only two downhills remaining in the 1977 schedule while Stenmark had six more races in which he might be expected to gain points.
One surprising, and typically negative, occurrence was the sudden collapse of the Italian men's team. It had been a powerhouse for some half a dozen years behind the splendid skiing of Gustavo Thoeni, a four-time World Cup winner, but this season the entire Italian team had but one victory. Because there are no new stars on the horizon, it seems likely that the Italians are on the brink of following the once dazzling French team into oblivion.
Now the question is whether the Mahre twins might move the American men's team into the vacuum left by the Italians. U.S. men never have been consistently competitive. Only Billy Kidd and Tyler Palmer were able to win as many as two World Cup races in their careers; beyond that only Greg Jones and Bobby Cochran won even one. This season Phil Mahre started off with a rush, winning the giant slalom at Val d'Is√®re early in December. Then, inexplicably, he and the team went flat. "We thought it was really coming, but it just didn't happen," Phil says. "We never got it together and it was a really tough winter." Hank Tauber says, "We tried to be patient. We knew it was just a matter of time. Some of our people just weren't doing what they should, but we knew it had to happen eventually—especially with the Mahres."
Ever since they came to national attention as a pair of wildfire 15-year-olds in junior competition, their promise was breathtaking. Graham Anderson, first vice-president of the U.S. Ski Educational Fund and a U.S. Ski Team official for many years, says flatly, "The Mahre twins are the best prospects this country has ever had."
They started skiing as toddlers at the White Pass ski area, which is managed by their father. All nine Mahre children skied, but their father, Dave, never pushed or pressured the kids to compete. "Our brothers and sisters quit racing to go to school," says Steve. "Right now we've quit school to go racing, but we might change that if racing isn't enjoyable anymore. Our dad just says we should do what we want."
"They are fiercely independent, yet show a remarkable sensitivity toward other people," Tauber says. "They finish a race, but they don't leave like a lot of racers. They stay at the bottom, talking to the press as long as anyone wants to, and congratulating other racers, telling younger kids and less talented kids how well they did." Last fall the twins split on their preferences for this season. Phil joined the U.S. team, but Steve stayed home in remote and largely snowless White Pass. "I thought I maybe wanted to go to school to learn to be a mechanic," he says. "Then I wondered if I could ever spend eight hours a day inside and not get outdoors. Finally in December I decided I better go back to racing even though I don't like training much and I don't like being away from home." Had he felt a lot of pressure from ski team officials or sponsors? "No, I felt pressure from myself," he says. "The team and K-2 [a ski manufacturer] and everyone had done so much for me, I figured Thad to repay them some of it."
Both are now being paid well into five figures for racing, and they often appear in advertisements. The money and the fame are gratifying, but, "Well, we've always had to work for money," says Phil, "and sometimes getting it for skiing—which I enjoy—I have to ask if I'm worth it. Money's welcome, but it's not the reason I ski. I ski because I enjoy it." Adds Steve, "The average person on the street sees us as celebrities—as skiers, not as human beings. Being popular like that doesn't mean much to me. I'm no different than the next guy. We get letters from 18-year-old girls who say, 'I love you' and junk like that. I couldn't really like anyone like that, someone who notices you only because you're a skier." Both insist they are hometown mountain boys at heart, that they would rather spend time at a motocross race or shooting baskets with their high school pals—who long ago nicknamed them "Wuss" and "Puss"—than with most anyone else in the world.
However homespun their attitudes may be, their ski technique is highly polished. They race with a dash and daring that Steve describes as "hanging right on the little thin edge between where you make a perfect turn as fast as you can go and where you blow away all over the course." Besides riding that razor's edge, the twins also have remarkably sharp eyes for picking the straightest line down a slalom course. Both wear contact lenses, yet as Tauber says, "They've got the eyes of bullfighters. When they come to what we call 'flushes'—those three-gate combinations—they can line up the gates and go through practically without turning. They straighten them out better than almost anyone on the tour."
Still, when the men's slalom began in Sun Valley last Saturday morning, there was no real reason to hope that the twins would excel. "I really didn't think I was skiing all that well," said Steve. Phil had suffered excruciating back spasms two weeks before. But after the first run, both were in strong contention. Phil was in third place behind Heidegger and Stenmark, Steve was fifth.
It was a magnificent, sunny day and the disastrous pall of this dry winter seemed to lift from Sun Valley at last. As the time for the second run approached, the crowd began to come alive along the flat but fast course of man-made snow. On that second run Stenmark skied what he said was "a run with no mistakes," clocking 52.69 seconds, 1:47.24 for the race. Six racers later, Steve Mahre burst out of the start and roared down the course.
Now the crowd began to shout. "I could hear them," said Steve. "And I could tell that it was an American crowd. In Europe, they holler 'hup! hup!' and the sound is real low. Here, I could hear all kinds of yips and high-pitched cheers. It was great." Perhaps buoyed by that American sound, Steve flashed across the line in 52.95, which put him second to Stenmark with a 1:47.64.
Then it was Heidegger's turn. In overall World Cup competition, the 19-year-old Austrian was Stenmark's most worrisome rival. Had he won, or even come close, Heidegger might still have stolen the cup from Stenmark. But he crashed high on the course, and that accident all but guaranteed the Swede his second straight championship.
As Stenmark stood at the finish area, he seemed so certain a winner that two members of the Austrian women's squad, Monika Kaserer and Annemarie Moser-Proell, rushed over to congratulate him. Stenmark shook his head and gazed back up the course. "There is one more coming," he said.
"Who?" they said.
"Phil Mahre," said Stenmark.
And then came Phil, starting 15th. In the first run he had started in the 20th spot, and the course had begun to break up under the pounding, showing sharp gouges and ruts left by previous skiers. This time it was not as choppy. Staying low, snapping his shoulder against pole after pole as he charged through the turns, Phil clocked a faster interval time than Stenmark.
Now the crowd hooted and whistled. Rising sound followed Phil as he flashed down the hill. When he crossed the finish, there was an expectant lull in the cheering. He'd come down in 52.56. When the announcer declared him the winner in 1:47.15, the mountainside fairly shook with sound—American sound.
The next day it looked for a time as if twin lightning might strike again. After the first run of the giant slalom Steve was in 11th place, Phil in second—but a bit more than a full second behind Stenmark. Alas, another miracle was not to be. Past the midway point on his second run, Phil skidded, fell momentarily onto one hip, then righted himself. But he had lost too much time. Stenmark took first place with a 2:32.36, followed by another brother act, Christian and Heini Hemmi. When the event was over Phil had finished eighth, and his brother was 14th.
In the women's competition, Lise-Marie Morerod, the striking Swiss slalomist, all but locked up the overall World Cup with a narrow giant slalom victory over Canada's Kathy Kreiner and—a delightful surprise—Abbi Fisher, 19, of South Conway, N.H., who finished third. In the other women's race the petite French 16-year-old, Perrine Pelen, won her third slalom of the year.
As the World Cup troupe left Sun Valley, there were still three weeks of racing ahead. There would likely be more rain, more acrimony, more scheduling chaos. And for Sun Valley this winter would forever be remembered as one of nature's crudest blows. But anyone who witnessed the performances of the Mahre twins—and basked in the radiance of their smiles—could not help but believe that hope springs eternal, that life can be beautiful and that, sometimes, very good things come in twos.