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."