Indeed she was. And after her victory at Lake Placid, she acted exactly like a little kid winning for the first time: She took off her skis, flung herself onto her back and kicked her feet wildly in the air. Her enthusiasm was understandable. The triumph bounced Cooper to first in the World Cup giant slalom standings. Hess took back the lead by placing second, between McKinney and Cooper, at Waterville, but it's a dogfight as the circuit heads back to Europe for the final two weeks of racing.
Meanwhile, on the western ranges of the continent, Johnson was sweeping all before him. On March 4 he dashed down Aspen Mountain to win a most significant and satisfying World Cup downhill—his third in a row (SI, March 12). To hope for another victory, at Whistler Mountain, would have been unreasonable. Certainly Johnson, smart and tough though he may be, would experience a letdown. Certainly the natural talent of some European star would have to rise up and blow the American off the Whistler course, which was steep, fast and rather technical—not Johnson's kind of terrain. No way. Johnson held a tuck even in the-tightest of turns, averaged 68.36 mph (fastest run of the season) and flew across the finish line .32 ahead of Helmut Hoeflehner of Austria. Overall World Cup leader Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland was third.
So a new American legend was almost at hand when the old double-image Mahre legend called it quits. There was a script for the twins' retirement: They were to ski—and, it was hoped, one would win—their last World Cup race in Vail on Wednesday, and then the next day they would reappear in the annual Legends of Skiing event. It was to be loaded with former heroes such as Stein Eriksen, Pepi Stiegler, Gretchen Fraser, Jean Saubert, Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga and Jean-Claude Killy, and as usual the racing was considered by almost everyone to be a lighthearted run down memory slope. The Legends is handicapped so the oldest skiers are given a head start out of the gate, and there are modest cash prizes: $500 to the winner of each age group and $2,000 to the winner of the head-to-head final slaloms that produce a Grand Legend of Skiing for each sex.
A sweet fillip to the end of the Mahres' brilliant careers, right? Wrong. A few of the more ancient legends didn't like the idea that the Mahres, both 26, could attain legendhood so quickly. Eriksen, winner of Olympic gold and silver in 1952, said with a disarming grin, "Are they already legends?" When he was asked how long it takes to become an authentic legend, Eriksen, 56, replied, "Fifty-six years."
Whatever the appropriate age, the Mahres weren't allowed to turn legendary at this year's race. And they didn't seem to mind. Phil said, "I wouldn't mind running in the race, but there are some hard feelings among some of the older guys about the money involved. We thought this was just a fun thing, but if they're worried that we would win their money, we'll stay out of it." The twins, who each earned more than $200,000 last year, did act as forerunners for the race. When it was all over, the winning Grand Legends were Fraser, 65, who won a gold medal in the slalom at the St. Moritz Olympics 36 years ago, and the nonpareil charmer Killy, now 40 and seemingly no less lithe and swift than he was when he tripled in gold in 1968.
In the hub-bub of the Mahres' final appearances, many things, both sweet and sour, were said about their life at the top of the ski racing mountain. Steve reiterated the Mahres' desire to be judged as mere mortals: "We want to be remembered as Steve and Phil Mahre—just people. We're no better than the next guy." Phil fired a typically outspoken zinger at U.S. Alpine team director Bill Marolt, whose relationship with the Mahres has been dicey from the moment he took over in 1979: "We never did get along with Marolt, and in recent months we haven't talked at all. He tries to coach on the hill, but he should leave coaching to real coaches." About his longtime rival, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, Phil was far more gracious: "The one thing I hope now is that Ingemar can win this year's overall World Cup. If Steve or I can't get it, Ingemar should."
There was much casting about among journalists and expert observers to come up with words that might best define the legacy left to U.S. skiing by the Mahres. Hank Tauber, Alpine director from 1974 to '79, probably said it best: "It's like the four-minute mile. Once the barrier is broken, all kinds of people are able to do it. The Mahres proved for the first time that U.S. men can win—and win big—in World Cup ski racing. From now on, more and more American men will be able to do it."
But what of U.S. male skiers who've languished in the giant shadows cast by the Mahres? Well, last week those erstwhile no-names finally came up with their own definitive answer to the question Is There Life After the Mahres? In the slalom at Vail, in which Phil finished tied for third and Steve skied off the course, there were no fewer than six Americans in the top 20, and three of them besides Phil—Mark Tache (9th), John Buxman (11th) and Tiger Shaw (14th)—earned World Cup points by winding up among the first 15. It was the best top 20 finish ever by U.S. men racers. It looks like there may be more American ski legends in the works.