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Twice as good a chance
William Oscar Johnson
December 18, 1978
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
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December 18, 1978

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

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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.

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