January 15, 2007A New Hill to Descend: Mahre Returns With Big Goal
By NATHANIEL VINTON
WENGEN, Switzerland, Jan. 14 — Which man deserves the title of America’s greatest ski racer ever, Phil Mahre or Bode Miller
? It is an argument that warms the sport’s fans during many a cold chairlift ride, and the debate breaks along a generational divide.
But as Miller zeroes in on the records Mahre set in the ’80s, Mahre has set out to modify his own résumé. This month, Mahre, 49, entered an internationally sanctioned race series at Mammoth Mountain in California. Competing alongside high school racers as young as 15, Mahre started 85th, when the snow surface was ripped to shreds, making racing slow and painful. He finished second. Watch your back, Bode.
Mahre, the 1984 Olympic slalom champion, shared the podium with two men born in 1986, two years after he retired. Within hours, coaches of a certain age were reigniting the great chairlift debate, e-mailing the results around.
“Things have gone well, and in some respects better than planned,” Mahre wrote recently in an e-mail message from Utah, where he competed last week in four more races. “Hopefully I can continue on the same upward swing and make this a reality.”
Mahre has set a goal of qualifying for the United States national championships next season, where at 50 he would compete against the whippersnappers on the United States ski team. This year, he simply hoped to establish a world ranking, but with results like the one in California, it is possible that he will qualify for this year’s edition of the championships.
“Better him than me,” said Tamara McKinney, Mahre’s former teammate, widely considered the country’s greatest female racer. “It’s not an easy sport at any age, but Phil’s in great shape.”
McKinney, 44, won 18 World Cup races and the overall World Cup title in 1983. She now sells real estate and coaches 10-year-old racers near Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Mahre has neither the intention, nor the joints — a broken ankle in 1979 required seven screws and a two-inch plate to reconstruct — to return to racing’s most elite circuit, but his modest comeback is noteworthy because it coincides with Miller’s assault on his position as the top American on the World Cup career victories list.
On Saturday, Miller crashed through the finish line to win the prestigious Lauberhorn downhill here, giving him his 25th career World Cup victory, two behind Mahre’s American record.
Asked about chasing Mahre, Miller said: “I don’t think of him that often. Obviously, he was a great champion. The U.S. hasn’t had many of those. He stands out in history of U.S. skiing as one of the few guys who really competed and won at the top level a significant number of times.” Mahre also showed little concern about having his record broken by Miller — whom he has criticized in the past. Miller is skiing strong now, a year after he failed to win medals in the five events he entered at the Olympic Games last year in Turin, Italy.
Those in Mahre’s corner point to the three years (1981-83) when he won the sport’s most prestigious trophy, the overall World Cup title. Miller did it only once, in 2005.
While Mahre was a “technical specialist,” racing giant slalom and slalom, Miller does every event, passing up chances to rest and train, and once swept victories in each of the sport’s disciplines in a record 16-day stretch.
Both are known for strong opinions and fearless independence.
There have been sea changes in ski equipment since Mahre retired, some of them driven by Miller’s experimentation. But Mahre has kept pace by running the Mahre Training Centers, a race camp. The digital revolution has been harder to keep pace with. In Mahre’s heyday, the United States team used a massive video camera and tripods so they could watch race video. Now, even junior racers travel with laptops, downloading World Cup footage that they compare side-by-side with video of their own skiing. One of the most important weapons in a skier’s arsenal is video analysis software that allows them to chart their speed fluctuations and to overlay images of themselves in different training runs. The United States ski team even has a super-slow-motion camera that reveals problematic vibrations of the ski that are invisible to the unassisted eye.
For now, Mahre takes the more old-fashioned approach of the “Rocky” movies of his day: He trains really, really hard. “I haven’t done much video stuff,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this winter. “For me, it’s just volume — getting 12 runs on a course and three or four more freeskiing. If you’re on top of your game, you can go back and do quality work, but for me it’s quantity.”
Adam Chadbourne, the head coach at Vermont’s elite ski school, the Burke Mountain Academy, invited Mahre to train with the team on a Austrian glacier and said Mahre blew the teenagers away as he lapped them on the training course’s chairlift. “He was a great inspiration to them,” Chadbourne said.
That approach is apparently already putting Mahre on track for his goal. “He’s an incredible athlete, just the way Bode is,” said James Cochran, a United States ski team racer. “It sounds like he’s going to make nationals. Hopefully he won’t beat us.” Cochran descends from the Cochran clan of Vermont that won a heap of Olympic and World Cup medals in the seventies. He races on the World Cup now, so he views the who’s-the-greatest debate from an authoritative perspective.
“Bode is definitely the Phil Mahre of our time,” Cochran said.