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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-Pröll.) 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.