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Double Trouble On The Slopes
William Oscar Johnson
January 18, 1982
The Mahre twins look and ski alike: Phil's the world's best, Steve's not far behind
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January 18, 1982

Double Trouble On The Slopes

The Mahre twins look and ski alike: Phil's the world's best, Steve's not far behind

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The cards are stacked against twins from the start, against their growing up to be geniuses, superstars, virtuosos, Nobel Prize winners, Presidents, Popes, world champions. This is dictated not only by the general biological and psychological facts of twinship but also by simple percentages. The fact is, twins make up a small minority on this planet—scarcely 1% of the population. Thus, when we come across a twin or, amazingly, a set of twins who are world class in any field, it's truly phenomenal.

So meet the phenomenal Mahre (rhymes with rare) brothers, Phillip and Steven, 24. They were born to a struggling, 30-year-old apple farmer and his wife, also 30, on May 10, 1957 at, respectively, 5:48 a.m. and 5:52 a.m., in St. Elizabeth Medical Center, Yakima, Wash., weighing in at 8.4 pounds and 7.6 pounds, respectively. Phil has grown up to be the best U.S. male ski racer ever. But if Phil didn't exist, then Steve would be the best.

And not only that. As this racing season has begun to unfold, it seems more and more likely that the twin sons of Mary Chott Mahre and David Robert Mahre could become the two best Alpine skiers on earth. What are the odds against that?

Phil won the World Cup overall championship last season to become the first non-European man to do so in the 15 years the trophy has been awarded. In 1980 he won the silver medal in the Olympic slalom at Lake Placid and the Federation Internationale de Ski gold medal for combined Olympic events. The only American to approach Phil's medal total was Billy Kidd, but he won only two World Cup races in his career (1963-70). Phil has won nine such races. No other male American has won more than two—except Steve. He has won three. And last year, when Phil finished first in the overall World Cup competition, Steve was a strong fourth. No other male American has ever finished better than sixth. And in the 14 slaloms and giant slaloms that both twins finished last season, Steve wound up ahead of Phil five times.

So much for the past. The present looks even brighter. Phil got off to a stunning start in December. Ordinarily he has lagged badly in the early half-dozen races, entering the tough meat of the season in January well behind the estimable Swedish slalomist and three-time overall World Cup champion Ingemar Stenmark. But in this December's series of nine events—seven races and two combineds—in France and Italy, Phil accumulated a staggering 135 points, more than any skier had ever gotten in such a short time and more than half the total he amassed in all 31 races last season, when he nipped Stenmark 266 to 260 in the overall standings by finishing second in the last race. (At this time last year, Phil had a scant 21 points.) Through last weekend he had won one race (25 points) and had been second four times (80 points) in two slaloms and three giant slaloms. He had skied two downhills and finished high enough so that he picked up 50 points from them under the FIS's complex World Cup scoring system. Even though Stenmark, who's in second place, won the giant slalom at Morzine, France last Saturday, he still trailed Phil by 71 points.

Then there's Steve. He's not as hot as Phil, to be sure, but he did accumulate 38 points in the early going—good for a tie for eighth in the overall standings. He won a special slalom in Cortina, Italy that was a triply historic event. With Phil finishing second, .08 of a second behind Steve, this was the first time that twins or brothers or Americans ever finished one-two in a World Cup race.

This skyrocket start had left the taciturn twins as close to full euphoria as they ever get. With a dazzling Doublemint smile, Phil confessed in Yakima during the Christmas holiday break, "I'm really confident. It's all just fun, no pressure. I'm concentrating better than ever. My mind is much sharper during a race. All-around I'm more consistent. It's as if the momentum has carried over from last year. And that win in Cortina did Steve a lot of good. Coming this early in the season, it'll be a big boost for him."

As Bill Marolt, Alpine director of the U.S. Ski Team, puts it, "The twins have the tenacity to do almost anything they decide to do. Steve is good enough to win the World Cup himself. He beats Phil often enough to prove that."

Both are strong and versatile athletes; they were football and track stars in high school, and they water-skied and competed in motocross until a variety of injuries—most notably the smashed left ankle Phil sustained snow-skiing in 1979 and Steve's series of knee problems—prompted doctors to suggest that the Mahres not engage in such high-risk sports. Like most world-class skiers, they aren't tall men; both stand 5'9", with Phil weighing 180, Steve 175. Both are dashing, attacking-type skiers who use a pole-busting technique that Phil calls "bullish." Thus both are considerably less elegant than Stenmark. Phil tends to race in a slightly more erect posture than Steve, who skis with a more rounded back.

Americans have always had great difficulty winning World Cup races, and one reason is that no more than two of the 30 or so races held each season are usually skied in the U.S. "Just imagine a basketball team from the NBA that had to play virtually all of its games away from home," says Marolt. "The players would hardly ever get out of hotels, would hardly ever get back to their own homes during the season. That's what our skiers face every year, and in 90 percent of the places they go, no one speaks their language. They're always looking for a place to do laundry, always competing before crowds who cheer for the other guys. Do you think there's any basketball team in the world that could win consistently under conditions like that?"

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