Mahres hope U.S. slalom drought ends at Vancouver
November 25, 2009
Before he was an Olympian, much less a gold medalist, Ted Ligety was making precision turns and effortless cutbacks in front of an admiring audience.
Phil Mahre was watching and marveled at the kid’s grace on skis. And maybe it didn’t matter that Ligety was behind a boat, skimming across the surface on water skis.
Mahre, a 1984 Olympic champion, was hosting younger members of the U.S. ski team a few years back at his place in Yakima, Wash. Nothing fancy, just a chance to get to know the up-and-comers, perhaps even serve as a mentor.
And Ligety was carving up Mahre’s private lake. If Ligety could do that on water, Mahre wondered, just how good could he become on snow?
Could Ligety become an Olympic slalom champion?
Mahre certainly wouldn’t mind a little company. He and his twin brother, Steve, who took silver that year in Sarajevo, are the last Americans to win a medal in the Olympic slalom, a distinction they’re reminded of every four years.
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Phil Mahre thinks the Vancouver Olympics provide the perfect backdrop to end that drought.
“It would be great to see someone come along and better what I did,” Mahre said. “That would be exciting.”
Ligety and Bode Miller have a legitimate shot to capture gold in the slalom, just as Mahre did a quarter-century ago.
“Half my lifetime ago,” Mahre said. “But that’s something you’ll always cherish.”
It was made all the more memorable by the fact he shared the moment with his brother. Not only that, but Phil Mahre’s son, Alex, was born that very day.
Talk about hitting the lottery.
“Only race I know the date of,” Mahre said, laughing.
The brothers were destined to be ski racers. Either that or fruit farmers.
They picked apples on their family’s orchard in Ellensburg, Wash., until their father sold the struggling business in favor of a position at a ski resort. It wasn’t long before they set up makeshift slalom courses on the slopes, racing each other well into the night with dim street lights off in the distance illuminating the way.
They pushed each other, motivated each other all the way to the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. There, the Mahres had their majestic moment on the mountain.
They still get asked about the race, always willing to relive the experience. When the brothers host skiers at their ski camp each winter in Deer Valley, Utah, they show footage from their medal-winning runs.
That day in Sarajevo, Phil Mahre turned in a solid final run, gliding down the slopes as if he were back at White Pass Resort as a kid.
Still, he was resigned to winning silver, especially with Steve Mahre in the lead and yet to go. His brother was skiing so efficiently. Steve, however, had a few snags in his run and Phil moved into the lead.
“That moment is still with me,” said Phil Mahre, who’s older than Steve by four minutes. “Olympic gold medalist? That’s a tag you’ll have throughout your life.”
As the Winter Olympics near, the calls begin to trickle in. Phil Mahre is asked about the state of U.S. skiing, and his opinions still carry a lot of weight.
And he repeats what’s he’s said for years – the Americans have loads of talent. He’s become quite impressed with this squadron of skiers.
There was a time when Mahre divorced himself from skiing, preferring to focus on family. For more than a decade, he kept a low profile.
But he was drawn back in by an invitation to work with some rising skiers at a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. They were teens with talent but in need of tutoring. So he offered some pointers, even if hardly any of the skiers knew him.
“Their heroes were the Tommy Moes and the Alberto Tombas,” Mahre recalled. “If 20 percent knew me, that was pushing it.”
That would soon change.
Some of those kids he worked with turned out to be Ligety, Steven Nyman and T.J. Lanning, all members of the U.S. team. Mahre captivated them with stories about how he and his brother made homemade slalom runs, and never wanted to come off the snow.
“They’d hike up and set up their own courses – ski a million runs a day,” Lanning said in awe. “Phil and Steve are both mentors for me.”
Later, Phil Mahre invited a group of them to camp at his house and water ski on a private lake he helped build.
“It’s cool to have a legend in our sport like that, who’s into watching the new generation coming up,” Ligety said. “Knowing him growing up was definitely cool.”
From relative obscurity, Ligety won a gold medal at the Torino Games in the combined, an event that blends times from slalom and downhill runs. His triumph inspired the then 50-year-old Mahre to come out of retirement and give competitive skiing another shot.
The comeback didn’t last long. He blew out his knee in a race when he made a fast cut on grippy snow. It was back to motivating young skiers instead of racing them.
Years later, Nyman still remembers the encouragement he once received from Mahre. Not a highly touted skier, Nyman was pointed out as an example at a clinic.
“He’s like, ‘This guy is charging through the ruts, while other guys are backing off. That’s the way,”‘ Nyman recalled. “Pretty cool to hear that come out of his mouth. You can tell he has an (older) body, but still has the mentality of a competitor.”
That’s why Mahre is contemplating another comeback. A craving for velocity is creeping back into the skier’s system. Even at 52, Mahre still believes he has the skill and spunk to outrace those half his age.
Only this time, Mahre’s competitive grit will be fulfilled on the auto race track, not on the slopes.
Sponsorship money willing, Mahre is hoping to return to professional road racing after a two-year hiatus. Just like swooshing down a mountain course, his tactics for a trip around the track remain the same – find the right line, kick it into high gear and see what happens at the finish line.
That approach has always been a solid strategy for Mahre, who won a silver medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in the slalom. He also captured three overall Wold Cup titles as well as 27 World Cup races in the slalom, giant slalom and combined over his career.
His biggest push always came from his brother. Steve Mahre wound up with nine World Cup wins, not to mention gold in the giant slalom at the 1982 world championships.
“We had a saying, ‘Let’s keep it in the family,”‘ said Steve Mahre, who has spent the past two summers constructing a new house just outside Yakima. “If he wasn’t winning, I’d better be. When we did win, those were the fun days.”
Try as he might, Ligety can’t place a finger on why the Americans haven’t won an Olympic medal in the slalom since the Mahre brothers.
“We’ve had a lot of good slalom skiers,” Ligety said. “But it’s a tough event, a hard event on your body. As you get older, you lose that quick-twitch muscle. It’s hard to dominate the slalom event for a couple of years.”
Can he possibly end the Olympic dry spell in Vancouver?
“I think I definitely have a good chance,” Ligety said. “This season, I feel like it’s going really well so far. I think I have a good chance for sure.”
Phil Mahre certainly hopes so. He wouldn’t mind the company.
On the Web: http://www.Mahretrainingcenter.com