They were born four minutes apart. Phil is older and faster, Steve is more complex. At 6, they climbed on skis. At 11, they were slashing down mountains in Oregon and Washington, winning firsts and seconds every time out.

Seeing them now, at 22, leaning on their poles at the bottom of a slalom run, riding up in a chair side by side, heads at the same angle, goggles up, the ruddy grins, the blunt noses, the strings of brown hair, the same hard set to the jaws sawing down from the cheek bones, you might wonder if you're suffering from double vision. It hardly helps that their U.S. Ski Team uniforms are exactly alike. Exactly alike except for the strap on Steve's goggles. The strap is white. It is Phil and Steve Mahre's little secret. It's how their coach tells them apart coming down a hill in practice.

Consider them coming now. Phil is first. He stands behind the timing bar, stamping in his bindings like a colt on packed snow. Even in padding, his body is trim and compact: 5 feet 11, 165 pounds, the body of a high-school running back, which is what he once was. Nothing of him seems wasted. He shakes his shoulders -- a swimmer about to leap for water. You hear a grunt, which must be fuel for courage. Who knows what ticks of concentration are inside, what forces gathering?

He only got spooked once, he says -- in Austria, in a downhill. He had run the hill the year before in slalom. But this was different. You slam straight down, at 85 miles per. I looked at the thing. It was so steep and icy. It's just not possible. But I couldn't turn and walk away. Once I got going, there was never any doubt. I knew who I was.

He didn't go "O.C." -- out of control.

Nor does he now.

"Later on," he says to his twin over his shoulder, nodding, just before he takes off, certain they will reunite on the other side.

He lunges, coming in a low crouch, slow at first, gaining speed, knees arching for the first turn, poles high, the torso tucked, the hips in perfect swivel, his shoulder niping the flags at the first two gates. His mouth is flexed open, bared, as if in silent cry. The sound, as he veers by, is a bullet in a wind tunnel.

You wouldn't know Phil Mahre has three screws and a metal plate in his left ankle. And a tiny, battery-controlled heater in his boot to keep his aching foot warm. That when he gets off the course tonight, he'll be limping. a

Seconds after comes his brother. You see the same curves of energy. The crouch doesn't seem quite as deep, maybe. But the open mouth, the noiseless cry are there.

This is the story of a symbiosis. It is the story of two brothers who can remember exactly one bad fight between them in their lives. (Steve, up in their room, hit Phil in the mouth. Phil started crying. So did Steve.)

But it is also the story of a mountain and a town in Washington state named White Pass (pop. 27), of a driving coach, of two parents who taught their kids about the will to succeed. "The body will always be a quitter," says Dave Mahre, Phil and Steve's father, who is 53 and still climbing 12,000-foot peaks on weekends. "The body will lie down. The Bible doesn't lie when it says faith -- the mind, whatever you want to call it -- can move mountains."

Phil and Steve Mahre: No longer are they the pair of hot-dog, wildfire, 14-year-olds whose promise, back then, in the Junior Nationals, seemed almost blinding. They are seasoned, calmed -- almost old -- competitors who are probably not far off from retirement, maybe as early as this spring. For six years they have lived near the summit of amateur skiing. And not without cost, including broken bones and cartilage, a marriage, going without families and friends, traveleing to strange countries and eating food they never really cared about. Theirs has been the odd, glassed-in bubble of the world-class athlete, though in truth they have always made sure there was some time left over for motocross and water-skiing and other sports that would also set them on the ledge of risk.

"I guess we just happened to be gifted," says Steve, as an afterthought.

Phil Mahre (they pronounce it mare ) is the finest male Alpine skier in U.S. history. Starting this season, he had won seven World Cup races in his career. In a sport owned by Europeans, that is something. If you want perspective, Billy Kidd -- who used to come down for the cameras in a cowboy hat -- won two World Cup events for the United States in his brilliant career. In 1978, Phil finished second in the overall World Cup standings, the highest finish ever by an American. Last year, he might have won it all had he not broken his ankle in March at Lake Placid. Though he missed five circuit events, he still finished third.

The World Cup is a circusy, 22-event salvation show that stretches over five months from Val d'Isere, France to Stratton, Vt. It has high rollers, camp groupies, disco and the constant aroma of danger. Europeans -- and Americans who know -- will tell you the World Cup is an eminently better test of a skier's skills. But it is the Olympics the world wants to watch. Up to now, American men have never won anything higher than a silver medal in Olympic Alpine competition. Now, at Lake Placid, Phil and Steve Mahre, along with Cindy Nelson of the women's team, are the U.S.A.'s great hopes for gold in Alpine.

They are not identical twins. They are fraternal twins. (They grew from two fertilized eggs, not one.) "The press wants them to be identical, no matter what you say," says Mary Mahre, their mother, who raised nine kids in all, most of them on skis. Mary Mahre, a kindly, reasoned woman, may be on to something. Almost nothing is monolithic, not even two lookalike brothers roaring down a mountainside on four pieces of fiberglass.

If you look closely, you will see that Phil's face is slightly rounder. Steve is maybe half-an-inch taller. According to their mother, Steve has a little hump in the back of his head. When they're both asleep in the same bed and their faces are relaxed, says Mary Mahre, you have to look twice.

Four voices:

Phil Mahre: "No, we can't read each other's minds. But you know what? Coming up in the chairlift a while ago, we noticed the same rock."

Steve Mahre: "He pushed me and I pushed him. If there wasn't anybody else to beat, there was always your brother. You could beat the third-place guy by three or four seconds."

Mary Mahre: "Brothers and sisters bicker. Jackie bickered with Cathy, and Davey bickered with Chris. But Phillip and Steven never bickered. I don't understand it.

Jake Borck, their old high-school football coach: "They don't drool over each other. But I'll tell you, these two got something strange and special going for them."

If these mountains die

Where will our imaginations wander?

He came out of orchard people. But always he longed to be in the mountains. A couple of years ago, he was turned down for a climb of Mount Everest. They thought he was too old. It still smarts. For years he has helped lead mountain rescues in the Northwest. He will tell you, when pressed, about the time in '56 when a plane went down in the Simcoe Mountains and he and a few others hiked in to find it. Though the pilot had wandered off (his body was found five years later by hunters), they saved a passenger. Another time Dave Mahre led a rescue on Mount Rainier: A climber had fallen and was hanging for several days in his rigging.

"It's one of those things where you weigh your life against another's," says the father of Phil and Steve Mahre. "The reason you do it is because that's how you pay your dues. You never really know when it'll be your turn and they'll have to come and pick you off."

To understand the sons, it helps to know the father. Dave Mahre is a small man, even tidier in build than his sons. ("I have never weighed more than 150, nor less than 145.") He isn't given to excessive speechmaking or partygoing. It's nothing, say his sons, to find him at 2 o'clock in the morning, beneath a bulb in his shop, repairing snowplows. Likely, he'll be up at dawn the next day. He has climbed every major mountain in the Pacific Northwest. People still talk about the time he climbed Mount Adams four times in one weekend. If you live in the Yakima Valley, Mount Adams is the first thing you see in the morning, the last at night. It is a focus for lives there. "Yeah, my grandfather was an old bullheaded German," laughs Mahre, as a way of explaining himself.

The Yakima Valley is the world's largest producer of apples, also hops. It is a lush place, because of irrigation and modern will. Seattle is 143 miles over the mountains. In 1952, the White Pass Road opened. Ten years later, Dave Mahre became area manager of the White Pass ski resort and moved his wife and growing brood, including his twin 5-year-olds, to White Pass Mountain, 53 miles from Yakima. From that day on, Phil and Steve Mahre practically lived on skis, the way kids in the Alps do. Their bedroom was 100 feet from the chairlift.

White Pass is one of the last places in the country you can't direct-dial. You get the operator's route, ask for a "ringdown," and then holler "White Pass 1." "It's a radio phone," explains Mary Mahre. White Pass consists of the Mahres; a combination store, post office and gas station, and a motel unit. Growing up, Phil and Steve had one friend their own age in White Pass.

Like their brothers and sisters, the twins went down the mountain to school, to Naches Valley High. The round-trip bus ride was 80 miles. In the early '60s, Naches won a state football championship. Naches kids are by and large tough, rural kids.

Phil and Steve started out in the line, moved to the backfield. Steve was a quarterback, Phil a tailback. As in everything else, they seemed inseparable there, too. "They were little and aggressive and tougher than hell," remembers Borck, who coached them through their junior year.

During the season, the twins would sometimes stay down in the valley with friends, come home on weekends. In summers, they'd swim and water-ski on lakes in the mountains, mow for the White Pass Co. There was not an abundance of money; nothing was handed to them. Though they had each other and their family, what they mostly had was themselves. Self-reliance. In a lot of ways, they both say now, the mountain formed them. It still storms their dreams.

"I've skied all over the world, and there's no place I'd rather be coming down than White Pass," says Steve. Adds Phil: "If we'd lived in the valley, we wouldn't be the same kind of guys we are now, I'm just sure of it. We would have been going out Friday nights in cars with our friends . . ."

Phil was valedictorian out of a class of 84; Steve finished fifth. Their parents expected no less, maybe more.

The Mahres are Catholic, though not obsessively so. "During the summer we didn't get much church in," says Steve, a little sheepishly. "In the winter a priest would come up and say mass in the shop." He hesitates. "But I believe the Guy is responsible for an awful lot of what we've done."

All of the family skied, including the parents, but from the first Phil and Steve showed stunning aptitude. "I think it's coordination. Isn't that what makes them so good?" says Mary Mahre, still mystified. Davey Mahre, second oldest of the nine, was also brilliant on skis. But he got away: He is now bush pilot in Ketchikan, Alaska, flying supplies to lumber camps for Tyee Air.

The twins married high-school sweethearts the summer before last. But almost nothing is monolithic: Steve's marriage took, Phil's didn't. He was divorced in October. None of the Mahres talk of this very easily. "It just didn't work out," says Phil, waving it away. He and Paula had dated for five years.

Steve's wife Debbie, lives with her three dogs and a cat outside Yakima. She'd like to be with her husband on the circuit, she says, but they can't afford it. "Our heating bill was $180 last month." She spoke with the thermostat turned to 56, sitting before the fire in a sweatsuit.

The money is tight because the Mahres are amateurs. What money there is comes from endorsements approved by the U.S. Ski Team. The Mahres have an agreement ("letter of intent") with the K2 corporation of Vashon Island, Wash., second largest American manufacturer of skis. K2 keeps two men on the road full time with the Mahres, servicing the maybe 20 pairs of skis they use. In return for their smiling photos in ads, Phil and Steve are rewarded with something called "broken-time payments." This gets tricky, but essentially it means a committee appointed by the U.S. Ski Team decides how much money the twins might be making were they not skiing; the committee remunerates them accordingly. The payments are confidential information -- everybody wants to duck this one -- but Bill Traeger, executive director of the U.S. Ski Team, says, "It's sure as hell not what the public thinks." A good guess is that each Mahre makes between $10,000 and $15,000 a year from skiing.

The big dough, of course, is in the pros.But both Mahres say they are reluctant to turn pro. For one thing, the level of competition is generally regarded as inferior to the World Cup. For another, the idea of doing something for money that you have done all your life for pleasure and excellence may be hard to choke down. Phil and Steve Mahre are amateurs in the best, Greek sense of that word.They perform for their own internal gleam.

Says the boys' father: "To climb mountains you have to chastise your body. It's the same in coming down them on skis. Nearly all of these champion skiers are equals physically. It's the spark of will that makes the difference. You can make things happen that won't happen unless you will them to happen."

Dave Mahre talks with a slow, precise deliberateness. Certainty. "I know we would be tremendously proud if they won a medal. But every one of us in this family realizes that somebody is always better on a given day. The thing that will make me lastingly proud is that they were there."

All of the Mahre family, including Debbie, plan to be in Lake Placid.They have booked a house for 10 days for $6,000, according to Steve. It was about the best thing they could get. It's much worse then Innsbruck was, says Steve.

Downhill racing is a lonely competition. No one understands what it is like except the racers, and people who are not racers say stupid things that are irritating, that make you feel contemptuous and aloof and even more lonely. Always, in the downhill, there is a chilly, gray, shivering mood, and yet there is the inner warmth of pride that you can do this well, the knowledge that it is a brave thing to do, and over all, of course, that great, tight constriction of wanting so much to win. In downhill, giant slalom and slalom, you are very much by yourself and on your own. You race the clock and your own estimate of your capacities and limitation, and it is only when you are down and waiting at the bottom for the times, that others are in it with you.

-- From The Downhill Racers, by Oakley lHall. Copyright (c) 1963 by Oakley Hall. By Permission of Viking Penguin

Killington, Vt. The seat of Eastern skiing. Five mountains, 72 trails, 13 lifts, 90 lodges . . . and no powder. It is the third week of November, Thanksgiving week, and New England skies are practically balmy. College kids done up in $1,000 outfits, with their hard-plastic, tangerine-colored Garmont boots and the latest Rossignol poles, courtesy mom and dad, sit around morosely in the Killington Base Lodge, waiting, souls trying to get out of Casablanca.

All last night, Killington Peak was lit with lights and the dull, depressing roar of snow machines. This morning, in brilliant sun, two trails are open to the public -- a novice and an advanced. The steeper run is a moonscape of ice moguls. It is maybe 30 yards across, and after that you're working on dirt. You'd have to be nuts to go up there with skis.

The U.S. Ski Team has come here to practice. Killington has been named the official Olympic training site for the United States. The Americans and the Swedes, including Ingemar Stenmark, Phil Mahre's archrival on the World Cup circuit these last several years, will quarter here during the Olympics. Other teams are scheduled to stay at other Vermont resorts. Reportedly, they will be bused or helicoptered over to Lake Placid for each day's games, which may make an odd vision: Choppers descending out of the skies with each nation's heroes.

Harald Schoenhaar, the men's head coach, is at the top of a run called the Glades, setting up a timing light. Schoenhaar is from Esslingen, West Germany. He has been head U.S. men's coach since 1976. For eight seasons, he ran the German national team. He is retiring in April, he says, to write and educate coaches and take it easy in his new mountain cabin outside Park City, Utah. Schoenhaar is a short, gruff, likable, mustached, burning-eyed, 39-year-old bachelor. You could visualize him with lederhosen and a whistle, leading a gang of boy scouts.Exuberance he's got. Today he's in snappy blue two-way stretch ski pants, a Desente jacket, a red-and-blue ski cap. He's also got a walkie-talkie.

"I been with them six years already," he says. "I saw them when they were little boys. Now they are men. They're beginning to learn you can't please everyone. They don't want to please everyone. I see them getting a little tight now sometimes with people."

Their biggest advantage is coaching themselves, he says. "There are three coaches: Steven as coach, Phillip as coach, Harald as coach. All three are listening to each other all the time. Steven will be standing with me at the finish and we're studying Phillip. 'He's high-siding, he's losing his ideal line.' And I say, 'No, that is not it. He's planting his poles too early. The angulation is wrong.' This is how it does. How in the hell can you be a coach of these young minds if you don't listen to them? I don't say, 'Do this!' On the other hand, I'm the one who is making hard decisions." Which may be something of a understatement since you nearly have to shoehorn conversation out of Schoenhaar's assistant coaches. "Ask Harald," says one, when all you want to know is: What time is lunch?

"I'm offering everybody to come to me with their problems outside of skiing," Schoenhaar says. "I was the first one Phillip came to when he wanted to get married. And I was the first one he told when he filed for his separation. You know, he is a very competitive man, Phillip. To be a competitor is a mental question. Philip is mentally very strong. He didn't let the instability of his marriage show. The others didn't know for a long time. Steven is competitive, too. He wants it more now. I think his wife Debbie plays a role there. Steven had a very unstable time three seasons ago. He was going to quit. I said, 'He is not going to quit.'"

Steve describes that period this way: "It was after the '76 season. I thought I'd accomplished everything I wanted. I said, 'Hell, I'm done.' I went home, stayed home, working at whatever came up -- cleaning the runs, shoveling moguls, driving cat, loading lift. By January, I knew I wanted to come back." And accept the sweet, awful grind.

"Seventy-six days already we're training without a day off," Schoenhaar says. "When we're in Europe, the team can relax in the back of the van. I have to drive that van." On Thanksgiving day, the team flies to Zurich. "Sure, it's hard on them. But they are a unit. That is how they defeat loneliness."

This is enough talk for now: The timing light is ready. Schoenhaar shuts the metal suitcase he has been working out of. Puts his goggles in place. Adjusts the bindings. "You know, a ski racer who makes it to the world level of competition, I am not worrying about in his later life. He has already been tested. He knows about getting cold. He knows he has to get down the mountain by himself."

Harald Schoenhaar sails off down the Glades of Killington, sans poles. That is the way it is done in Europe.He disappears over a ridge. He is making a wide, glistening s. . . .

That evening, after dinner, Steve comes over to talk. He is in Hushpuppies and a black nylon ski jacket with gold trim. He sits with his hands folded, stoic and sure. His fingers are brown and blocky. He has the leathered, satisfied look of someone who has spent the day outdoors.

"I think I'm more of a kid right now than if it had been the other way. You know, it's a pretty easy life. For seven or eight months, everything's paid. You just sign for it.I'm spending the day doing something I love. If Phil and I weren't skiing, may be we would be two guys in a factory, trying to pay our rent."

He is asked if his brother's greater success bothers him. "It's hard for any person to have a brother or sister get more attention. But I don't think it's a question of Phil beating me. It's me beating myself."

And then this, fast: "I really love the guy. He's more of a best friend than a brother. In the year he and I were married, we didn't see that much of each other. It was like a friendship lost, really. When he broke up with Paula, he moved in with us. Debbie didn't mind. She said, 'I sure missed having both you lugs around.'"

His coach? "At times you kind of hate him inside. Other times he seems like the best friend you've got. Some days, on a bad race day, he won't even talk to me. 'Jesus Christ, Harald. I did my best.What do you want?' I guess that's the kind that gets the most out of you."

He hasn't given much thought to life after skiing. But he isn't worried about trying to top this. "I might want to get into carpentry. Building houses. I'd like to build my own house. So I'd know exactly what I have.I'd like to have a strong house someday. I think a lot of work now is mushy."

The next morning, the slopes of Killington are mushy -- even worse than the day before. A TV crew from WBZ, Boston, has shown up with a 14-year-old Cambridge kid to film a segment for a series called "Changing Places." The plan is to put the kid in team colors and let him whiz down the hill. "The last ones we did were with a jet pilot, a model and a chef," says the woman producer whose designer jeans are stuffed in her boots. "Some people actually thought he flew the plane." Today, she is ready for anything, which includes going up Killington Peak with all kinds of clunky equipment.

At lunch Phil comes over, resignedly. He is asked if he were ever tempted to let down for his brother. He is sitting, hands clasped before him, just as Steve has the evening before.

"Never. He wouldn't want me to let up. There were times growing up when he'd beat me, I'd beat him. I have the edge now. That's all."

What he likes about skiing, he says, is that it isn't "political." It's you against a clock. "You can't fudge."

And you against a mountain?

"Yeah, I'm attracted to that, too."

It's almost never work, he says, no matter how long he practices. "If I saw gates on the side of a hill, I'd just go run 'em. It's in my blood."

What isn't in his blood is the burden of the hero. He has never liked this part of it. "There are times I'll be rude to media. At the end of a season, especially. Everybody wants a piece of your body." Sometimes they get letters of proposal from 16-year-olds they don't even know.

He is looking at his plate. Maybe he has drifted away, somewhere out there, beyond the window, to himself and a long, deep slice of white.

"It's only going to happen once . . . It only lasts so long." CAPTION: Picture 1, Phil and Steve Mahre by John Terence Turner; Picture 2, Steve (front) and Phil: They eagerly accept the sweet, awful grind of training. It's almost never like work, says Phil, no matter how long he practices. "He pushed me and I pushed him," says Steve. "If there wasn't anybody else to beat, there was always your brother." Copyright (c) Norm Glasen/Focus on Sports; Pictures 3 and 4, Mary Mahre (top): "Phillip and Steven never bickered." Dave Mahre: Still climbing 12,000-foot peaks. Copyright (c) 1979 Ken Whitmire Associates