Twice as good a chance

The U.S. men's team is still looking for its first Olympic champion, but with Phil Mahre and his twin Steve gaining speed, the break could come at Lake Placid
December 18, 1978

This one is Phil. This one is Steve. They are 21, identical twins. They are the Mahres of White Pass, Wash., and in the 14 months between now and the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, they could possibly become the new double-dip, mirror-image, two-for-the-money toast of Alpine ski racing. Phil and Steve are becoming known as the Great White Pass Hope, and with good reason. In the 13 Winter Olympiads staged over the past 56 years, U.S. men have never won a gold medal.

The odds against the U.S. winning a gold even now are about as steep as the slalom runs on Lake Placid's Whiteface Mountain, but they are not impossible; in fact, they are a shade better than they were last year at this time. When the 1977-78 World Cup season got under way, only one twin (Phil) was worth betting on. This year it's Phil plus Steve.

Phil, the slightly more dashing and reckless racer of the two, has been at or near the top for a couple of years. In the 1976-77 season he won a World Cup slalom and a giant slalom. Last season he won two slaloms and a giant slalom. If such a record seems unimposing, compare it with those of racers of our less-than-glorious past: no other U.S. male ever won more than two World Cup races in an entire career. In addition, Phil placed so consistently in last season's competition that he wound up second in the overall standings behind Sweden's nonpareil Ingemar Stenmark. Phil's 116 World Cup points plus the 97 bagged by seven-year veteran Cindy Nelson added up to no less than 50%-plus of the entire U.S. team's points for the season, a total that put the Americans in third place behind Austria and Switzerland. That equals the best U.S. team finish ever.

Steve had been pretty much a ne'er-do-well in international skiing—in fact, more of a ne'er-do-anything-at-all. He had been reluctant to leave the comforts of home and the company of his longtime high school sweetheart for the months of high tension and hard traveling in Europe that are demanded of any serious competitor in world-class racing. After a year or so of hesitation, he finally kind of edged into the act in the winter of 1977 with a surprising third, behind Phil and Stenmark, in a Sun Valley slalom. Last season he was a creditable eighth in the slalom in the FIS World Championship at Garmisch, West Germany, before slamming through the gates to beat both his brother and Stenmark and win a World Cup slalom in Stratton, Vt. last March. And if Steve still hasn't earned equal billing with Phil, Stenmark, Liechtenstein's Andreas Wenzel and Austria's Klaus Heidegger, he could well reach that plateau with a few fast finishes as the new World Cup season moves along.

Typically, the twins started the season slowly. Neither Phil nor Steve is renowned for being fast on the getaway, and last season both scored their victories late in the year, having built their confidence as the circuit moved along. The official start of the new World Cup season last weekend in Schladming, Austria went according to form.

What everybody expected, and got, was a win by Stenmark in the giant slalom, in which Phil finished 18th and Steve 44th. The world champ not only beat the field, but he also won by a whopping two seconds in a gloomy rain that had turned the snow to the consistency of oatmeal.

That was last Saturday. On Sunday, Phil entered his first World Cup downhill ever, one of four events this year that will offer points toward the combined championship. He finished 35th—about what one might expect of a slalom specialist—but was fourth in the combined to pick up 11 World Cup points. Steve finished 44th in the downhill, too, which shows a certain consistency, if little else.

"Not too good for a start, but not too bad, either," Phil said. "I expect to do better as we keep going. The combined result gives me a small jump on the season, good stuff for when the competition picks up."

(Over in the Italian Alps at Piancavallo, the U.S. women's team broke away to a better start. Abbi Fisher, 21, of South Conway, N.H., won the slalom, and Tamara McKinney. 16, of Olympic Valley, Calif., the youngest racer on the circuit, tied for third.)

Whatever those results may bode for the future of Phil and Steve Mahre (pronounced mare), they both allow that they are firmly committed to racing through the spring of 1980, which would include participation in the first U.S. Olympics in 20 years. With many racers that would seem to be a foregone conclusion, but with the twins it isn't. They are a low-key pair, and one doesn't hear symphonies of patriotism any more than declarations of high purpose when they discuss the sport.

"The day that I don't enjoy skiing is the day I'm going to quit," says Phil. "Either it's fun, or I just don't want to be in it." Steve also speaks matter-of-factly about the joys of competition. "Things have been going good lately. If they hadn't, I guess I might have dropped out."

One reason for the relatively cool view of their lives as racers is that the Mahres are hard-core homebodies who don't much like Europe. "Traveling is a hassle," says Steve. "I never look forward to it, although I've sort of gotten accustomed to it so that it doesn't bother me as much as it did." Phil says, "The best place in the world is home. We know that this is only going to be for a couple more years, not for a lifetime."

Home for the Mahre twins now is the quiet little community of Yakima in the apple orchards of Washington's Yakima Valley. Both got married last summer; commendably they avoided a double wedding. However, both wedding parties exited from the church through honor guards of skiers holding ski poles aloft. Each Mahre married his high school sweetheart: Phil, 20-year-old Paula Davis; Steve, 21-year-old Debbie Dunn.

Paula, a small blonde former high school sprinter who blushes a lot, didn't ski until a year ago, and she says, "When I met Phil I didn't even know he skied. I guess Phil liked that because all the other girls he went out with knew he was the famous Phil Mahre. He acted so much older than the guys I had been going out with. He would open the door for me and everything."

Debbie, a former high school cheerleader with sparkling eyes and smile, has been skiing for years but is still an intermediate. "I knew all through high school that the Mahre twins skied, but I thought they were in just little races." she says. "Steve was better known for being a quarterback. But he was really shy in high school. We started going out at the end of our senior year. Steve says he always liked me. But once when I broke up with a boyfriend, he was so slow that before he had a chance to ask me out, I already had a new one."

The high school where the romances blossomed is located in tiny (pop. 710) Naches, which is 11 miles from Yakima. The graduating class had 90 students; Phil was the salutatorian, Steve fifth in the class. A great percentage of the students arrived via school bus. The Mahres had a 90-minute ride each way from White Pass, some 40 miles above Naches. And it was here, at little more than a wide spot in the road, at the foot of a ski area in the Cascades, that the two most promising American racers learned their craft.

Dave Mahre had been mountain manager for the White Pass ski area since the twins were four years old, and the family moved into a house that was roughly 20 yards from the foot of the main chair lift when they were nine. The twins' mother, Mary, is an energetic and infinitely patient woman who has seven children (now six to 28) besides the twins. "Well. I'd never have twins again, I tell you," she says. "Their sister was 17 months when they were born, and my whole life was nothing but babies, morning to night. Everyone says that I have more patience than most parents. Well, maybe. I don't think I bark at my children, and I don't think I ever belittle them. I try to treat my children as people who are equal to me, and I try not to order them around.

"We've been blessed with good minds and healthy bodies, but Dave and I haven't tried to push the children. All our children have won many trophies. With the twins, Dave says they pushed each other and that's why they were so good. It probably started when they were crawling; they went right on into skiing. They were invariably one-two in races. I think maybe Phil likes to win a little more than Steven does. But that may be changing now."

As small boys, the twins skied constantly on the White Pass trails, and when they were eight years old they entered their first race. Phil won, Steve was second. "Before they were 12, people would say, 'They'll ski in the Olympics someday,' " Mary Mahre says. "Somehow it was in the air, I guess. Myself. I couldn't see it because I'm not a skier, really—I could just barely get down the hill. And Dave didn't ski with them a lot. But somehow it seems as if they had the God-given gift, and I guess they're putting it to use."

There is reason to believe that it will be put to better use this year than ever before. Hank Tauber, the Alpine team director, says, "I think both Phil and Steve are really happy, personally happy, for the first time. Their marriages have been good-for them and have served to settle them down so that they can give full attention to developing those fantastic skills they have. Steve is happy as a racer now, too, since he got that win at Stratton. That gave him confidence he never had before, and now he is capable of putting together slaloms every bit as good as Stenmark's or Phil's. They've never had a better attitude."

That will come as good news to the twins' critics. Phil and Steve's rather lackadaisical attitude toward the off-mountain, off-season training of most racers has long troubled the more conventional practitioners of ski racing. "I train, but I do what's good for me," says Phil. "Skiing's a good winter sport, but there's no way I'm going to ski in the summer. I play basketball, I ride motocross, and I water-ski. Still, it's clear that the best way to get ready for racing is to ski lots of miles. You use different sets of muscles skiing than in any other exercise, and you can't get at them unless you are skiing."

Possibly so. But even the twins' mother says she has seen a change in attitude in her sons. "You know," she says with an air of confidentiality, "I think they are really training this year. They never trained before, they just said, 'Naw, I don't want to do that.' This year they are putting out, and that is different."

But the Mahres will no doubt remain individualists, both in ski racing and in their private lives. While they are together when they ski, coaching each other and rooming on the road, they are not inseparable, nor are they all that similar in attitude. Steve is more talkative, Phil more philosophical. They are both motorcycle freaks and half-court basketball nuts, and both have bought houses in the Yakima suburbs. But their houses are six miles apart and as different in style and furnishings as if they were owned by two strangers. Says Phil's Paula, "Phil practically never sees Steven when they are home. They do their own things now. They used to be together all the time, but now they have different friends." "We are never at the same place at the same time," says Steve's Debbie.

The twins have prospered mightily (though not equally, given Phil's superior record) through ski-equipment endorsements and public appearances. They also have wined and dined in distinguished company, but they remain untouched by their celebrity. As their mother says, "They have never gotten big heads. When they were at the White House this summer I asked them, 'Was it fun? What rooms were you in? Who did you meet?' And they said, 'Oh, they were all just people like us.' They aren't that impressed with being famous—or with other people being famous."

So they remain level-headed fellows, firmly planted in the turf of small-town America. Ironically, they are far better known in the Alps than in their own country. That could change this World Cup season if they deliver on the promise they have shown. It certainly will change if they win gold medals at Lake Placid. But whatever happens, don't count on the Mahres being any different. As Steve says, "We just like to be home in Yakima. Nothing else in the world is as good as Yakima."

PHOTOSlaloming into the new season, Phil (left) is an established winner, while Steve is coming on strong.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)