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"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.