The last time we saw Phil Mahre, America's most reluctant sports hero had an Olympic gold medal around his neck and tears rolling down his face.
The gold was earned by beating his twin brother Steve on a slalom course near Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, last February. The tears came because Mahre was not with his wife Holly, who gave birth to a son that same day, half a world away.
"I'll tell you one thing," Mahre said that day to the international media horde, gathered to record his exultation. "It's not worth missing it."
Eleven months later, with his wife and 26-month-old daughter Lindsay sitting on a carpeted floor before him and his gold medal boy, Alex, bouncing gleefully off a wall behind his feet, Mahre said he had no regrets about the racing life he had lived nor his decision last year to leave it.
"I stayed around a lot longer than I thought I would, and accomplished more than I ever dreamed of," said Mahre, a two-time Olympic medalist and three-time World Cup overall champion. "I got out on top, and that's the way I planned it."
Phil and his fraternal twin Steve, who grew up in a big family in a very small town in Washington state, labored for 10 years in the rarefied, diamond-hard world of international ski racing. In capital cities from Europe to New Zealand and Japan, the Yankee snow twins were surrounded by fans, pursued by groupies and offered every sweet and sour temptation of success.
But the Mahres never were seduced by the glitter. They were blue-collar craftsmen, captivated by nothing as much as the glow of their own bright talent. When they chose to retire, they came down from the mountain with characteristic style.
"A lot of athletes have problems with that. It's tough when you step out of the limelight, when suddenly the phone stops ringing," Phil Mahre said to a clinic of ski racers lodged at the base of a mountain in the Rockies. "For me, it was kind of nice. I never was one for fame and glory. I just liked to ski fast."
When they were racing, the Mahres spent offseasons cowboying around the Washington wilderness on motorcycles or hammering nails at home. Retirement has kept them busier. They are touring to promote a new line of ski clothing, are under contract with Ski magazine to write a monthly column, have produced video cassettes on skiing technique and are involved in plans for a half-hour television program on their sport.
Then there is the Mahre Training Center, a series of six-day ski racing clinics they put together with their former coach, Harald Schoenhaar, now the director of the United States' alpine ski program. This winter, the clinics are being conducted at Keystone Resort, 75 miles west of Denver. Next year, they hope to expand the camps to at least a half-dozen ski areas across the country.
"We'd really like this to balloon," said Phil Mahre, who is spending three days at this clinic while Steve is home in Washington, recovering from knee surgery.
If the reaction of the 27 people who paid to attend this clinic is an indication, the concept is economically sound.
"I got Phil Mahre to myself for two straight hours," said Nell Barnes, an educator from Raleigh, N.C., whose beginner status put her in a skiing class by herself. Mahre, who rotates his ski time among subgroups in the clinic, spent an entire morning with Barnes. Riding up the lift, you could see the two of them -- Barnes the beginner and Mahre the world champion -- executing basic snow plows down an intermediate slope.
"It would cost me $1,000 to hire Phil Mahre as a ski instructor," Barnes said. She said a high point of the clinic came when Mahre put both hands on one of her knees to demonstrate proper form. "That is the way to learn angulation," she joked. "With Phil Mahre's hands on my body."
It is difficult not to be impressed with the Mahres. They are sincere, modest, hard-working and friendly. They seem gracious both in victory and defeat. In short, they are the kind of sports heroes this country once celebrated but of late rarely sees.
To hear Phil tell it, the brothers would not have been much better than average skiers if they hadn't wreaked havoc on their father's fruit orchards when they were 5. They drove tractors into canal ditches and pruned mature trees into worthless stumps. Their mayhem was enough to persuade their father to give up the business and accept a position as area manager of White Pass, Wash., ski resort.
With a population of 30 full-time residents, White Pass offered little in the way of diversion except snow.
"We skied every night after school. It was either sit in the house or go out and play in the snow," Phil Mahre said. The brothers got better by racing each other. Remarkably, the sibling rivalry drew them closer. They can remember only one fight during their childhood. Steve punched Phil in the face. Both cried.
"We didn't tear each other apart at all. We both helped each other up the ladder," said Phil Mahre, who was always a fraction faster than his brother. Steve likes to joke that he was born four minutes after Phil and has been trying to catch up ever since.
Last year in Sarajevo, Steve had a commanding lead after the first of two slalom runs. But in the final run, Phil took advantage of his brother's mistakes to win the gold. Steve settled for the silver.
"My brother actually gave me that medal," Phil said. "Beating Steve like that was very difficult for me emotionally. It would have been better if he had won."
Phil Mahre has other, equally unorthodox opinions.
About injuries: "Breaking legs helped me immensely. It was like something had been taken away from you. It made you work that much harder."
About the need for world-class athletes to adhere to a special diet: "I was always on a see-food diet. I'd see food and eat it. Growing up in a family of nine kids, you eat fast or starve."
With the retirement of the Mahres, the U.S. men's ski team has dropped from one of the world's best to one of the more ordinary. There still is gold medal downhiller Bill Johnson, but this winter he has failed to come close to a top-five finish on the World Cup circuit.
"It's hard to say what's going to happen," Mahre said. "I was 24 before I won my first World Cup. Sooner or later, someone comes along."
After spending three days with Phil Mahre, sharing lunch tables and ski lifts, listening to the patient way he deals with student mistakes, you begin to wonder how anyone who seems so calm and content could push himself with the requisite ferocity to beat the world's best racers.
One night, as he talked to our group, he was asked about the ankle he shattered at Lake Placid in 1979, and how he managed to come back one year later to win a silver medal in the Winter Olympics.
"Most doctors gave me a 50-50 chance just to walk straight, let alone run or ski," Mahre said. "And there were days when I wondered if it was all worthwhile. But I never did it for anyone else. I never did it to win medals. The pressure comes from within . . . "
He stopped talking and began taking great gulps of air, and his eyes began to tear. Not from pain, but passion.
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