Phil Mahre is the most successful ski racer in U.S. history; he has won more events and awards than anyone else, including a silver medal in the 1980 Olympics, three World Cup titles in 1981, 1982, and 1983, and a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
World Cup and Olympic Gold
Mahre, one of nine children, grew up skiing. His father Dave, a former apple grower, took a job as manager of a ski area in order to support his large family. Mahre and his siblings were often dressed in clothes from the lost-and-found at the White Pass Lodge in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, where their father worked. Their school was an hour and a half away but the ski slopes were right outside their door. Mahre did his homework during the long bus ride home, got off the bus, and hit the mountains, hiking in summer and skiing in winter. By the time Mahre and his twin brother Steve were nine, they were already winning local children's
races; Steve, who was born four minutes later than Mahre, was never quite as fast as Mahre, but he was still a top skier. Although the brothers competed with each other, they also celebrated each other's victories.
Mahre made the U.S. Ski Team at age fifteen. At the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Mahre won a silver medal in slalom. It was only the third Alpine medal won by an American male in ten Olympics over the past forty-four years; no American had ever won a gold medal in Alpine skiing. However, that would soon change.
Although Mahre was a top contender, he also emphasized enjoying his sport, and he was not motivated by medals and honors as much as other racers were. On the eve of the last race of the 1981 World Cup competition, when Mahre was under pressure to become America's first champion skier, Mahre played three hours of basketball despite friends' warnings not to waste energy. He told Tom Callahan in Time, "A lot of people say I'm crazy, but I think all these things are games, and games are for fun."
The fun paid off, because Mahre won the overall World Cup Championship that year, as well as in 1982 and 1983, an unprecedented feat for an American skier.
As a result of his win, Mahre became so well known in Europe that when he returned to the United States, where the public knows comparatively little about his sport, it was a relief for him to not be recognized on the street. "I don't think there are many Americans who understand what I've done," he told Tom Callahan in Time. "That's unfortunate for skiing but nice for me. I'm not one for fame and fortune."
At the 1984 Olympics, held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, Mahre edged out brother Steve by .21 of a second, winning gold and leaving silver for Steve. Just after this win, Mahre found out that his wife Holly had just given birth to their youngest child, Alexander, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mahre told Mark Beech in Sports Illustrated, "I couldn't tell you the date of any win I've ever had with the exception of that one. My son's birthday reminds me of the gold medal, not the other way around."
Mahre also told William Oscar Johnson in Sports Illustrated, "This, to me, is just another victory. It's wrong to say this is the best day of my life. If it were, what am I going to do with the rest of my life."
This modest assessment of Mahre's abilities, and those of his brother, was not shared by others in the ski world. Christin Cooper wrote in Skiing that the brothers "were a team unto themselves, riding their own comet that few ordinary mortals could seem to latch onto. The more momentum they gained, the farther behind the rest of our men seemed to fall."
Turns to Race Car Driving
At the end of the 1984 season, though, Mahre retired from World Cup racing. He returned to Yakima, Washington, with his family. However, he was not through with moving fast; he and his brother Steve started a ski instruction and apparel business, and in 1987 they became interested in driving race cars. In 1997, they raced a Pontiac Trans Am. Mahre told Robert Sullivan in Sports Illustrated, "It was a great year. We raced nine times, and I think we made progress." The brothers also learned about their new sport by attending the Skip Barber Racing School in Willow Springs, California.
The brothers focused on "endurance" motor racing, which involves events lasting longer than three hours, and for which they worked as a team. They discovered that on certain tracks, Phil was faster, and on others, Steve was. "Each time behind the wheel we learned something," Mahre told Sullivan. They noted that there were some similarities between skiing and racing: both require concentration, although the many hours required for racing were obviously much longer than the few minutes needed in ski racing. Both also require fast reflexes and reactions, as well as an analytical side: just as they studied the ski course before racing it, they look over a race track and discuss their strategy before getting in the car to race on it.
The brothers had a setback at the 24 Hours of Daytona Race in 1988, when Phil spun their car, and a third driver they had hired for the long race crashed it. In March, Mahre spun and crashed the car while on his eighth practice lap. He told Sullivan, "I was trying to go too fast on cold tires, which is something I learned not to do last year…. It was just as if I had hooked a tip [ofa ski] and torn a ligament: I put us on the sidelines. I sure hope that's the low point of the season."
Some other drivers resented the Mahre brothers because they had arrived in racing with famous names and a reserve of funds from ski winnings. Racer Mark Hutchins told Sullivan, "A lot of drivers come from underprivileged backgrounds and have had to make serious personal sacrifices to be in racing. Yes, there's some resentment when others aren't required to work to get a ride." But he added, "Personally, I like having them out here."
Mahre told Sullivan, "I don't consider us a threat to anybody," and noted that he once told some of the famed drivers in the sport, "We'll just try to stay out of your way and try to be predictable. Just don't run us over." The drivers, he said, were "very friendly. They said, 'Good to have you here, it'll help the sport.'"
The brothers' car-racing hobby was expensive, though, so both twins went back to ski racing with the U.S. Pro Tour, hoping to win enough money to support their racing habit. Mahre won several races, but was not impressed with his competition. In 1991, he told Johnson, "I'm definitely a has-been, and they're all never-weres."
|1957||Born May 10, in White Pass, Washington|
|1972||Joins U.S. Ski Team|
|1980||Wins Olympic silver medal in slalom|
|1981-83||Wins three consecutive overall World Cup titles|
|1984||Wins Olympic gold medal in slalom|
|1984||Retires from World Cup racing, returns to Yakima, Washington|
|1984||With brother Steve, starts a ski apparel business|
|1987||With Steve, begins driving race cars|
|1988||Crashes car in 24 Hours of Daytona Race|
|1988||Returns to competitive skiing in order to finance car racing|
|1990||Wins eight-race American City series in Sports 2000 class|
|1991||Begins racing on GT-2 circuit for Trans Am cars|
|1991||Wins overall Plymouth Super Series Slalom; retires from ski competition|
|1992-present||Coaches young racers in U.S. ski program|
Awards and Achievements
|1980||Olympic silver medal, slalom|
|1981-83||Three consecutive overall World Cup titles Entire career Ranked 6th on all-time World Cup win list|
|1984||Olympic gold medal, slalom|
Mahre won the eight-race American City series in the Sports 2000 class in 1990, and in 1991 he and his brother began racing on the GT-2 circuit for Trans-Am cars. Mahre bluntly told Johnson, "I expect to make only enough to pay the bills. But I've never lost sleep over winning or losing before, and I'm not going to start now."
In April of 1991, Mahre won the overall Plymouth Super Series Slalom at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and again said he was retiring from ski competition, although he did not rule out the possibility of competing in occasional races to raise money for his cars.
Of the Mahre brothers' influence on skiing, Christin Cooper wrote in Skiing, "The Mahres were both so uncommonly talented and so equally self-assured about their potential that they had little to do but reach it," and noted, "They were amazing on skis, and with their results destroyed the myth of European supremacy in World Cup racing."
Although Mahre no longer competes in skiing, he coaches young racers in the U.S. ski program. Mahre told Beech, "I still have a passion and love for the sport, so I stay in it. Most kids who are 13 or 14 are clueless as to who I am, which is kind of nice. I have a lot of fun with them."
Where Is He Now?
In addition to coaching for the U.S. ski program and running an annual Ski Clinic at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Mahre often makes appearances at corporate ski outings. In 2002, he hosted the first NASTAR Championship at Waterville Valley Ski Resort; NASTAR is a program for young ski racers. In that same year, he and his brother Steve signed a multi-year contract with ski manufacturer K2. The brothers planned to work with the manufacturer to design racing skis, and to find racers to promote the brand.
Beech, Mark. "Tamara McKinney and Phil Mahre, Skiers" Sports Illustrated (March 18, 2002): 21.
Callahan, Tom. "For Purple Mountains' Majesty." Time (March 21, 1983): 67.
Callahan, Tom. "Their Success Is All in the Family." Time (January 30, 1984): 44.
Cooper, Christin. "Star Wars." Skiing (October, 1985): 51.
Johnson, William Oscar. "Happy Trails: Ski Racing Great Phil Mahre Calls It Quits." Sports Illustrated (April 8, 1991): 16.
Sullivan, Robert. "Two to Travel—Fast." Sports Illustrated (May 2, 1988): 94.
Boyd, Tom. "Athlete Commission Distributes Winter Funds." Vail Trail, http://www.vailtrail.com/ (November 18, 2002).
"Phil Mahre." Olympic-USA, http://www.Olympic-use.org/ (November 12, 2002).
Sketch by Kelly Winters