The cards are stacked against twins from the start, against their growing up to be geniuses, superstars, virtuosos, Nobel Prize winners, Presidents, Popes, world champions. This is dictated not only by the general biological and psychological facts of twinship but also by simple percentages. The fact is, twins make up a small minority on this planet—scarcely 1% of the population. Thus, when we come across a twin or, amazingly, a set of twins who are world class in any field, it's truly phenomenal.
So meet the phenomenal Mahre (rhymes with rare) brothers, Phillip and Steven, 24. They were born to a struggling, 30-year-old apple farmer and his wife, also 30, on May 10, 1957 at, respectively, 5:48 a.m. and 5:52 a.m., in St. Elizabeth Medical Center, Yakima, Wash., weighing in at 8.4 pounds and 7.6 pounds, respectively. Phil has grown up to be the best U.S. male ski racer ever. But if Phil didn't exist, then Steve would be the best.
And not only that. As this racing season has begun to unfold, it seems more and more likely that the twin sons of Mary Chott Mahre and David Robert Mahre could become the two best Alpine skiers on earth. What are the odds against that?
Phil won the World Cup overall championship last season to become the first non-European man to do so in the 15 years the trophy has been awarded. In 1980 he won the silver medal in the Olympic slalom at Lake Placid and the Federation Internationale de Ski gold medal for combined Olympic events. The only American to approach Phil's medal total was Billy Kidd, but he won only two World Cup races in his career (1963-70). Phil has won nine such races. No other male American has won more than two—except Steve. He has won three. And last year, when Phil finished first in the overall World Cup competition, Steve was a strong fourth. No other male American has ever finished better than sixth. And in the 14 slaloms and giant slaloms that both twins finished last season, Steve wound up ahead of Phil five times.
January 18, 1982
So much for the past. The present looks even brighter. Phil got off to a stunning start in December. Ordinarily he has lagged badly in the early half-dozen races, entering the tough meat of the season in January well behind the estimable Swedish slalomist and three-time overall World Cup champion Ingemar Stenmark. But in this December's series of nine events—seven races and two combineds—in France and Italy, Phil accumulated a staggering 135 points, more than any skier had ever gotten in such a short time and more than half the total he amassed in all 31 races last season, when he nipped Stenmark 266 to 260 in the overall standings by finishing second in the last race. (At this time last year, Phil had a scant 21 points.) Through last weekend he had won one race (25 points) and had been second four times (80 points) in two slaloms and three giant slaloms. He had skied two downhills and finished high enough so that he picked up 50 points from them under the FIS's complex World Cup scoring system. Even though Stenmark, who's in second place, won the giant slalom at Morzine, France last Saturday, he still trailed Phil by 71 points.
Then there's Steve. He's not as hot as Phil, to be sure, but he did accumulate 38 points in the early going—good for a tie for eighth in the overall standings. He won a special slalom in Cortina, Italy that was a triply historic event. With Phil finishing second, .08 of a second behind Steve, this was the first time that twins or brothers or Americans ever finished one-two in a World Cup race.
This skyrocket start had left the taciturn twins as close to full euphoria as they ever get. With a dazzling Doublemint smile, Phil confessed in Yakima during the Christmas holiday break, "I'm really confident. It's all just fun, no pressure. I'm concentrating better than ever. My mind is much sharper during a race. All-around I'm more consistent. It's as if the momentum has carried over from last year. And that win in Cortina did Steve a lot of good. Coming this early in the season, it'll be a big boost for him."
As Bill Marolt, Alpine director of the U.S. Ski Team, puts it, "The twins have the tenacity to do almost anything they decide to do. Steve is good enough to win the World Cup himself. He beats Phil often enough to prove that."
Both are strong and versatile athletes; they were football and track stars in high school, and they water-skied and competed in motocross until a variety of injuries—most notably the smashed left ankle Phil sustained snow-skiing in 1979 and Steve's series of knee problems—prompted doctors to suggest that the Mahres not engage in such high-risk sports. Like most world-class skiers, they aren't tall men; both stand 5'9", with Phil weighing 180, Steve 175. Both are dashing, attacking-type skiers who use a pole-busting technique that Phil calls "bullish." Thus both are considerably less elegant than Stenmark. Phil tends to race in a slightly more erect posture than Steve, who skis with a more rounded back.
Americans have always had great difficulty winning World Cup races, and one reason is that no more than two of the 30 or so races held each season are usually skied in the U.S. "Just imagine a basketball team from the NBA that had to play virtually all of its games away from home," says Marolt. "The players would hardly ever get out of hotels, would hardly ever get back to their own homes during the season. That's what our skiers face every year, and in 90 percent of the places they go, no one speaks their language. They're always looking for a place to do laundry, always competing before crowds who cheer for the other guys. Do you think there's any basketball team in the world that could win consistently under conditions like that?"
The Mahres are the two old men of the U.S. team, and they have learned to adjust to life on the road. But that doesn't mean they like it. "Travel isn't our favorite thing," says Phil. "When we're done with ski racing, we will stay home—for good." Adds Steve, "The travel is even more boring than it was years ago. We spend a lot of time playing cards or touch football. We like it when we get to Garmisch because it has a big U.S. Army post and hanging around there is more like being at home than anywhere else in Europe."
At the moment, the Mahres are the only American men who compete at a consistently high level. Indeed, through the first month of this season, they were the only skiers on the American men's A team. They were the only two who ranked in the first seed in any of the three disciplines. (The U.S. women's A team, by contrast, has five skiers in the top seedings.)
It's an old and perhaps insoluble problem, this dearth of successful U.S. male skiers. Phil explains it this way: "In the States most really good athletes prefer other sports—basketball, football. And skiing is very expensive. But there's also the problem, I think, that too many U.S. skiers set their goals too low. Once they make the U.S. team, they figure they've achieved the biggest goal and they don't feel any need to excel any further. The U.S. has lots of talent, exceptional talent. We have great coaching. But I guess that our skiers just aren't as hungry as some others."
Possibly so. In contrast to most of their countrymen, the Mahres seem positively starved. Europeans used to scorn U.S. skiers for being lazy playboys who loved to compete but hated to train. Not these two. Tom Kelly, one of the U.S. men's coaches, speaks almost reverently of the Mahres' approach to training: "They're just workhorses. They don't train much in summer, but when they do train, they put more into it—and get more out of it—than anybody else. They go full blast." One training habit the Mahres have developed is arising in the dark on the day of a race and, long before the lifts open, climbing the mountain with Kelly and Head Men's Coach Konrad Rickenbach. They set poles on a course for prerace training. Says Kelly, "The other teams wait for the lifts to open. By the time they show up, the poles are broken and the Mahres have the hill in a mess. I think Phil and Steve get psyched up through their morning training."
There are a number of other factors besides diligent training that are working powerfully in the twins' favor this season. For one thing, Stenmark isn't the Super Swede of yore. Until last Saturday. He hadn't won a race since Feb. 14, 1981—a bleak run of 11 consecutive winless races. Though he seems outwardly as stoic as ever, these failures have troubled him. "Ingemar broods about losing," Phil says. "When you do that, every bad race compounds your depression, and things just get worse." Besides, though he's only 25, Stenmark has won 63 World Cup races in his career, more than any other skier. (His win Saturday moved him one ahead of Austria's Annemarie Moser-Pr√∂ll.) His annual income from prize money plus endorsements of everything from Saabs to coffee is said to be more than $1.5 million. Many observers think Ingemar has simply—and understandably—gone stale.
But others wonder if Stenmark is suffering from quite another kind of malaise—lovesickness. To the delight and surprise of everyone on the ski racing circuit, he has lately begun traveling with a girl friend. She is Swedish, a former airline stewardess, blonde, good looking, seven years his senior. One of Stenmark's friends says, "Ingemar is in love for the first time and I'm sure it's hard to concentrate on skiing. He has always been the best because he was so fanatical about his skiing. It was everything for him, every minute, year-round. But now he's traveling with his girl friend to all the races. It makes a difference."
Enough difference so that Stenmark's coach, Hermann Nogler, told a group of journalists early in the season that he was of the opinion that Stenmark must send his girl friend home. "In the near future there will have to be a change," said Nogler. Nothing has changed, though Stenmark and Nogler appear to have patched things up. Stenmark himself grumps "no comment" when asked by the press about his affairs of the heart, and when close friends question his mediocre race results, he replies, "I'm not so secure. I'm not so confident. You don't get confident losing, even if it isn't by much. You have to win. Now and then, it is going well. Then not at all."
So it could be the end of the Age of Ingemar and the dawn of the Mahre Era in world skiing, though there's no shortage of other challengers now that Stenmark's dominance has been broken. Andreas Wenzel, the tough, consistent Liechtensteiner, is one of the few top skiers on the circuit who competes, as does Phil, in all three disciplines. He's a threat but he has finished no higher than eighth this season, and Phil says that Wenzel, like Stenmark, is given to brooding when he performs poorly.
The Swiss and the Austrians have their usual depth, but between them they don't seem to have an all-around skier to match Phil. And then there's the new potential powerhouse—the Soviet Union. After last season, it seemed as if the U.S.S.R. might finally have arrived. Valery Tsyganov won the downhill race in Aspen, Colo. for the first World Cup victory ever by a Soviet. Following that came a deluge of wins by Aleksandr Zhirov, the son of a Moscow telephone-repair man. He had four victories in the last two weeks of the season. But that momentum hasn't carried over into 1981-82; the best results the Soviets had in December were two ninths by Zhirov.
A good indication of whether the Mahres will be able to beat out these challengers will come on the steeps of Schladming, Austria, a quaint resort town in the Dachstein-Tavern region of the Alps, 50 miles from Salzburg. Here the FIS world championships will take place Jan. 28 to Feb. 7. No American male has ever won a race in a world championship over the 43 years the events have been held.
Will Phil? Will Steve? The odds are against them, of course. Yet their odds are enhanced because they're really sort of a double entry, although they insist they don't like being depicted as ganging up on the competition. Says Phil, "We don't consider it the twins versus Stenmark. It's Steve versus Stenmark and Phil versus Stenmark. We help each other whenever we can. But we're racing against each other, too."
Of course. But there is a oneness about them, a unity that has a powerful genetic bond, a conjunction of minds and bodies and souls that certainly had its genesis during the long and mysterious months when they shared their mother's womb. Steve puts it this way: "It's like he's a part of me. When I'm not doing well, I want him to do well. At the Olympics, I ended up falling, but knowing that he was ahead after the first run made me feel great. Almost as if it were me." Not surprisingly, Phil puts it almost exactly the same way: "It's sometimes like he's an extension of myself. When Steve wins, it's almost like a victory for me. It just doesn't feel as if I've been beaten when he wins. So if I can't win, I want him to win."
Twins always have been the subject of myth and superstition—and not always sunny myths or fun superstitions at that. According to Amram Scheinfeld's 1967 book, Twins and Supertwins, the Kaffirs of Southern Africa were said to have believed that twins could be produced only by two men; thus, any mother of twins was automatically branded an adulteress and spent the rest of her life in disgrace. Some American Indians, such as the Zuni, scorned twins and supertwins (more than two babies at one birth) because they resembled litters of lower animals. Primitive nomads such as Eskimos, the Ainu of Japan and Australian aborigines routinely murdered one or both twins largely because of the difficulty encountered by mothers carrying two babies on long treks.
The mythology of twins isn't quite so bleak. The Greeks believed that two of their most admirable deities, Castor and Pollux, were handsome and dashing twin sons of Zeus and Leda, and they eventually took their place in the heavens as the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. Mojave Indians believed that the creation of the world was aided by twin-brother gods. In a lighter vein there have been Lewis Carroll's droll twosome in Through the Looking Glass—Tweedledum and Tweedledee—and the Bobbsey Twins, the Katzenjammer Kids, the Doublemint Twins and the Gold Dust Twins.
Some of lore's and literature's most famous tales of twins are fraught with conflict. The Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau, twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, tells of a near-mortal battle in their mother's womb over who would emerge as the firstborn. Esau won. Jacob, with his mother's connivance, later tricked his twin out of his birthright. Then there were Romulus and Remus, who were suckled together as babies by a she-wolf. As men they quarreled fiercely over which had been born first and, thus, had the right to found his own city. Remus was murdered by Romulus, who then named his new town Rome after himself.
Although these are myths, there's apparently more than a grain of truth to the theme of conflict between twins. Donald M. Keith, 46, executive director of the Center for Study of Multiple Birth in Chicago and an identical twin himself, says, "There's often a tendency toward unhealthy competition between twins. If twins can't accept each other as individuals and one tries to remold the other twin in his own image, conflict occurs. My brother and I argued and fought until we were 28 years old. Then each of us realized he could accept the other for what he was, that each of us was his own man."
Experts don't contend that there is always friction between twins. Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who is doing a study of twins who have been raised apart, says, "There's no constant pattern to the behavior of twins anymore than there is for singletons. Some twins compete and compete with each other, driving each other, pushing each other. Others take deliberately opposite routes so as not to compete with each other—or to be compared with each other."
Ah, yes—to avoid being compared with each other. Here, it seems, lies the crux of the trouble in twinship. Keith speaks with a passion that clearly reflects grim personal experience: "There's always such an intense public curiosity about twins. People are always standing them up, staring at them, comparing them to one another. We want to scream, 'Hey! Stop comparing us! I am me and he is he. Take us separately.' I don't think there's a twin alive who doesn't bear deep psychological scars from being a twin."
Nonetheless, no one is suggesting that the closeness of twins is always an obstacle to success. In many cases, it is quite the contrary.
"Twins can become a great help to each other," Keith continues. "Like the Mahre brothers. In my opinion their accommodation of their twinship has made them absolutely synergistic. They function together in a way that makes the two of them greater than the sum of their parts."
Whatever synergism might energize specific sets of twins, the hard fact is that there have been relatively few over-achievers who came in pairs. Among the exceptions: F.E. and F.O. Stanley, who invented the celebrated Stanley Steamer automobile in 1897 and went on to build the Stanley Rocket, a machine that in 1906 set a world speed record by traveling 127.66 mph to become the first car ever to travel faster than two miles per minute. Jean Felix and Auguste Piccard, pioneers in aeronautical engineering and ballooning, were identical twins. Thornton Wilder was a twin. And so are Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Friedman, better known as Dear Abby and Ann Landers. So, too, are the late Shah of Iran, Maurice and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, Norris and the late Ross McWhirter, who created the Guinness Book of World Records, and the late Elvis Presley, whose twin brother died at birth.
In sports, we have Mario and Aldo Andretti (Aldo retired from car racing after an accident in 1969); Tim and Tom Gullikson, who rank 52nd and 63rd in the world in tennis; Faye and Kaye Young, who played for the New York Stars in the defunct Women's Basketball League; Marlin and the late Mike McKeever, who starred together in football at USC in the 1950s; Takeshi and Shigeru Sou, world-class marathoners (personal bests of 2:09:49 and 2:09:56, respectively) from Japan; Dick and Tom Van Arsdale of various NBA teams. In-fielder Brian Doyle of the Oakland A's is a twin—his brother, Blake, plays in the minors—as is Pitcher Rawly Eastwick of the Chicago Cubs. There is even a theory that Jim Thorpe was a twin, though this is a little-known fact. His brother Charles died in boyhood. And, of course, there are Phil and Steve Mahre.
They are, says their mother, fraternal, not identical, twins—"just two brothers who happened to be conceived at the same time."
The difference between a set of identical twins—monozygotic is the scientific term—and fraternal or dizygotic twins is that identicals are conceived from a single egg fertilized by a single sperm while fraternals are the product of two eggs fertilized by two sperm. Monozygotics have precisely identical genetic "wiring." They occur about once in every 270 births, fraternals approximately once in every 150, although estimates are unreliable since the incidences of twin births vary from country to country. Keith suggests that from his observations—totally superficial and at a distance—the Mahres could well be identical twins. "Doctors make mistakes," says Keith. "My brother and I thought we were fraternal twins for 40 years before we had blood tests and learned that we were, in fact, identical. Unless the Mahres have had blood tests, maybe they shouldn't assume they're not identical." The Mahres have had no such tests.
Phil and Steve fall in the middle of a big family that includes four older siblings and three younger—nine children in all. With wives, husbands and various offspring—including the girl that Steve's wife Debbie gave birth to on Dec. 29—there are 22 in the Mahre clan. Mary Mahre, a sweet and patient woman of seemingly endless good cheer, says without a trace of treacle, "Dave and I are the luckiest parents in the world. All of our kids are of above-average intelligence. They've been class leaders, valedictorians, homecoming queens, Girls State and Boys State. Phil was salutatorian in his class and Steven was fifth. Not one of our kids is a failure, not one is a burden."
However, there aren't any mega-millionaires, movie stars or budding Nobel laureates among the Mahres. They are, in fact, the epitome of the kind of admirable—if vanishing—American middle-class family that is content with modest circumstances and salt-of-the-earth values. There has never been much money around the Mahre household—and nobody seems to care very much. Dave Mahre, a slim, talkative fellow, has been mountain manager at the White Pass ski area in the Cascades of Washington since 1962. It is a job that demands mechanical skill, a job that pays a modest salary, a job that he took only because he had failed at farming the apple and pear orchard he owned in Ellensburg near the Yakima Valley, where he grew up.
"I cried the day I quit farming," says Dave, and there are tears welling in his eyes as he speaks. "But there wasn't enough food on the table to feed six or seven youngsters. I had been working as a ski patrolman at White Pass to bring in a little something extra. Then they offered me the mountain job, and we moved. And, living up here, this family has seen and done things we never would've thought possible. You're looking at a very happy guy. It's not the monetary return that makes me happy. God knows that. If I had a lot of money, I'd probably give it away." Tears are streaming from behind his thick spectacles, and he says, "I don't try to keep things inside me. These are happy tears. I've had a hell of a good time. This is one of the few places in the world where the American Dream is not dead."
The family has lived its version of the dream in a small, rather cluttered house that it doesn't own—the White Pass management does. It's situated perhaps 30 yards from the main chair lift up the mountain, even closer to the maintenance garage where Dave repairs SnoCats. There's almost nothing up on the pass except the lodge, the lifts and a few establishments to house and/or feed skiers. The Mahre kids went to school in Naches (pop. 710), 40 miles down a long, curving mountain road, a 90-minute schoolbus ride each way. Nothing has been easy. "The foundation of this family is self-reliance," Mary says. "We take care of ourselves. We never have had much, but we never sponged. We dressed the kids out of Lost & Found at the lodge. Why, we lived out of Lost & Found some winters. We don't care what people think of that, but, you know, it would kill me if I ever took a food stamp. I don't mind the Lost & Found, but to sponge off other people, other taxpayers, that would just kill me."
So that's where they come from, these remarkable twins. Lost & Found. From the start, they were always together—sort of alone together—in the crowd that was their family. "They were like one person," says Mary, "part of the family, sure, but really more a part of each other. They never bickered, never. Everyone else was constantly squabbling, and the twins would fight with the others, but they were always together. You know, I think they even kind of mothered each other. They were the only ones in the family who never brought their school papers home to me when they were little. They would show them to each other and that satisfied them."
They began skiing when they were six, showing no great talent for two or three years and then suddenly becoming demons in small-fry ski races. Later, they blew everyone out of the Buddy Werner League races that were held at White Pass beginning in the mid-'60s. Eventually, they were the only two who could compete with each other. "They were always one-two," says their mother. "They pushed each other. One year Steve won everything. But Phil didn't seem to mind. They were still inseparable."
They still room together on the World Cup Circuit and are constantly together during the months of traveling, but when they return to Yakima they're apart much of the time. Phil was divorced two years ago and lives in a poster-bedecked bachelor pad with two pals, while Steve, Debbie and their new daughter, Ginger, live in a modern bungalow in a neighborhood of suburban young marrieds. However, the Mahres have bought big, neighboring parcels of land in the Yakima Valley. They spent sunrise to sunset there every day during the off-season, building, with their own hands, a very ambitious two-story house for Phil. "We liked working on it so much that it was almost hard to get skiing again," says Phil. "I can't wait to get back at it. I'm going to spend the winter reading books about plumbing and electricity."
Though technically the Mahres are amateurs, they have made a fair amount of money, very likely more than $100,000 annually as "expense" money from sponsors. But they could make a lot more if they were willing to let themselves be merchandised more aggressively. However, that just doesn't seem to fit into the Mahres' view of the American Dream.
"Fame and glory aren't something we really like much," says Steve. "We haven't sought a lot of money. We'll take an endorsement here and there, but we won't go for a million dollars or anything like that."
Adds Phil, "I'd probably be just as happy flat broke. It's real difficult for us to think of being like a Bruce Jenner. I think you participate in a sport because it's fun, because you excel at it, because you like doing it. That's your goal, I always thought. Bruce Jenner's primary goal, I think, was to get rich. I think that's what motivated him to win his gold medal—money."
The twins use K2 skis, Lange boots and Marker bindings (all products manufactured by American-based companies). They haven't changed brands in the eight years they've been on the U.S. Ski Team. "We could have had a bidding thing every season to get more money," Phil says, "but we've had such a good relationship with these companies there's no reason to change. And we're kind of patriotic, too. We like to stay with American products."
Well, this sort of thing goes on and on. These are genuinely clean-cut, genuinely modest, genuinely nice fellows. Self-effacing, not money-oriented, loyal to old associates, patriotic? Can athletes in the 1980s be like that?
In a word—yes. And here's more proof. The scene was a slalom course in Borovets, Bulgaria, on a damp day at the end of last March. It was the next to the last race of the World Cup season, and the event was fraught with drama. If Phil finished second or better, he would beat Stenmark, then the leader in points, for the overall World Cup. However, if Stenmark won the race and Phil was 16th or worse, Stenmark would add five points to his lead. As the race began, the course was wet and beginning to break up. Steve was the first racer out of the gate in the first run and he turned in a splendid time—the best of the run, it would turn out. Phil and Stenmark started near the end of the first 15 seeded racers, and both finished well behind Steve. In the second run Steve blasted down the course and wound up second to Zhirov. Phil, with a superhuman effort, came in third, but because his twin had finished ahead of him, he failed to clinch the cup. The citizens of world ski racing stood at the finish, aghast, appalled, amazed. Steve had prevented his brother from winning the most coveted prize in skiing. Phil recalls that strange day: "The Europeans couldn't believe it. They couldn't understand why Steve hadn't folded up and let me go ahead of him. They all remembered 1975 when Gustavo Thoeni [the Italian who won four World Cups] had a chance to beat Ingemar for the cup in the last race of the season. It was a head-to-head dual slalom. Everyone on the Italian team went in the tank when they raced Gustavo. Sure, Gustavo won, but it was a cheap victory, to our way of thinking. If Steve had lost to me on purpose, that would have made it a cheap trophy for me, too." Steve adds, "They couldn't understand that. But we're a lot happier skiing like we did. It was true competition." Fortunately, three days later Phil finished second in a GS at Laax, Switzerland and clinched the cup.
This pure approach to sport is appreciated more widely than might be expected. Karl Kahr, the coach of the vaunted Austrian team, is a tough, pragmatic fellow, yet he recalls with a glint of admiration, "I was in Borovets when Steve skied off with the points that would have sealed the World Cup for Phil. But that day was very typical of the Mahre brothers. Those two boys are into sports, not politics."
So they go on—always together. You can watch them slowly climbing a slalom course side by side, discussing the set of each gate with the concentration of chess masters. You can see them in early morning moonlight setting their own slalom poles for a series of training runs. You can see one at the finish, quick to grab a walkie-talkie to tell the other of a bad spot on the course. Always together, like one person.
They definitely plan to continue skiing until the 1984 Olympics—well, maybe not definitely. "We don't really take skiing as seriously as most Europeans," Phil says. "We could be here today and gone tomorrow if we thought there was something more important."
Steve says: "Yes, we will be here as long as we enjoy it. But if Phil weren't around, this wouldn't be fun. I guess if one of us quit, it wouldn't be long until the other quit, too." Phil nods and says, "I agree. It wouldn't be long."
And when the day comes that they do decide to leave, you can be sure of one thing: You won't see their like again for a long, long time.
On the whole, twins are underrepresented in high-achievement situations. Some research indicates that, as a group, they are less likely than singletons to excel. This is due largely to a certain amount of biological competition in the womb and, of course, to the higher risk of injury and defect they encounter at birth.
—THOMAS J. BOUCHARD JR.,
DIRECTOR, MINNESOTA TWIN STUDY