Skip to main content
Original Issue

Starting out with a chaser

The Swedish champ isn't exactly quaking in his ski boots, but in the early rounds of the World Cup a dashing American is battling him through the slalom gates

The hot tip in world ski racing this season is not that Austrian daredevil Franz Klammer will win every downhill event they put in front of him. He has done just about that for two years now. It was no surprise when the king of the mountain threw himself into the first three downhills of the World Cup season and won all three by a mile. There are seven more to go and Klammer looks long gone.

But, hold on. The real drama lies just off center stage in the trickier slaloms, where style is everything and where Klammer usually lands on his ear after bombing the first three gates or so. There a battle is shaping up between Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, the snakiest racer of them all and last year's World Cup champion, and Phil Mahre, a mop-headed 19-year-old whiz from White Pass, Wash. Mahre won the first move by dusting everybody off, Stenmark included, in the season-opening giant slalom at Val d'Isère. Two days later, he raced to third place in the second GS to become the leader in the World Cup standings. Because no American male had ever won a World Cup GS in the Alps or any World Cup race there in four years, Mahre became an overnight celebrity. Stenmark, who finished second and sixth, was seen beating the ground with his ski poles at the finish line, a flash of anger that he had never displayed before.

The competition grew more intense when the racing circus moved on to Ebnat-Kappel, Switzerland, where muggy weather had turned the giant slalom courses into something like yogurt. Mahre finished the first run in second place, 16/100s of a second behind the eventual winner and local hero, Heini Hemmi. He started just as hot in the second run, but skied into a hole at the 13th gate. Stenmark, meanwhile, came in 24th in the first run; in the second he made up enough time to finish eighth overall. In the next slalom at Laax, Switzerland, Stenmark finally won his first World Cup race of the season. Back up on the hill, Mahre skied into a gate instead of a hole—and failed to finish. This dropped him to seventh in the standings; Stenmark was in second. And then came last weekend and the GS in Garmisch, West Germany. This time it was Stenmark who crashed. After flashing across the line in 1:36.68 in the first run, the fastest time and seven-tenths ahead of Mahre, Stenmark charged through some 40 gates in the second before his wipeout. Mahre stayed upright and confident, finishing fourth behind surprise winner Klaus Heidegger of Austria. The standings: Stenmark in fifth, Mahre up to sixth, only two points behind. And while a few early races do not make a season, the results served to quash predictions that Stenmark will ski away with the cup this year.

"I'm hanging in," says Mahre. "Nobody has gotten too far ahead of me yet."

The duel between champ and challenger has been coming on since the end of last season at Aspen when Mahre finished behind Stenmark in the slalom in which Stenmark clinched the World Cup title. "Next year I will have to watch out for him," Stenmark allowed at the time. Now it seems next year has arrived.

Last October, when the U.S. and Swedish teams were training in Val Senales, Italy, Mahre and Stenmark resumed their competition in timed practice runs. "In the GS I was way off pace," says Mahre. "I was two seconds out against Stenny. But in the slalom there were runs when I tied him or was just two-tenths slower."

"I knew from Phil's training runs that he was getting very good," says Stenmark. "I watched him, all right." Mahre also used the Val Senales camp to study the Swede's flawless technique and to compare it with his own. "In the slalom," he says, "Stenmark is ahead of everything. The gate doesn't come to him; he goes to the gate. When there is a rhythm change, he has a feel for the line where he should be. His style is letter perfect."

Hank Tauber, the director of the U.S. team, says, "Phil is very spontaneous. He makes errors. But he is so talented that he can correct a mistake at top speed in the middle of a turn. He has not skied his perfect race yet, but when he does, the rest of the world won't be able to touch him. Including Stenmark. When Phil won the first race, the Europeans thought it was a fluke. But when he got that third place and was leading in the cup standings, they said, 'Hey, he's for real!' "

Mahre's win was reason to celebrate, a relatively rare occasion for the U.S. team, and Colmar, the company that turns out racing suits for the team, presented him with two cases of champagne. "We only let him have a few sips," says Tauber. "But he doesn't really like the stuff, anyway. He likes milk."

Both Mahre and Stenmark are country boys who have no taste for champagne or adulation. While Mahre is a bit more outgoing and an easy talker, Stenmark is so reserved and shy that he is usually referred to as "the silent Swede." At times he opens his mouth as if he wants to say something, then, apparently thinking better of it, closes it again. Otherwise, they are quite a bit alike: both come from a rugged life-style and a home mountain that is not big enough for downhill training. Consequently, both concentrated on the slalom events and developed their techniques on their own. Says Stenmark's coach, Torgny Svensson, "Talents are born, not made. We coaches can do nothing but organize the training facilities."

Mahre and twin brother Steve, also a promising racer, were born in Yakima, Wash. Every winter the family went skiing at White Pass. When the twins were nine the family moved there, after Dave Mahre had been named assistant manager of the White Pass resort. The Mahres now have nine children, and all but 4-year-old Ruthie spend summers moving rocks and stumps to clear trails, painting ski lifts and digging trenches. "It's a kind of pioneer life," says Tauber. "They are tough kids. Unspoiled. Like Klammer, who shovels manure on his farm."

When he was nine, Mahre decided that he wanted to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1976, but on the day before Thanksgiving in 1973, he broke his right leg racing away from an avalanche—and losing. "I'm lucky I'm here today," he says. "I raced into the trees and hit a stump. I was buried up to my waist." Mahre broke the leg again the next summer, this time clowning around on a children's playground slide, and doctors installed four steel screws in it. His victory in the GS at the national championship in February 1975 was his first race in 1½ years. The next season, he made the World Cup team and the Olympics, in which he finished fifth in the GS; Stenmark won the bronze.

Racing in Europe was bewildering at first, but Mahre has decided to play it cool. "I want to concentrate, to race at the top of my ability," he says. "So I try to ignore it when the Europeans trample all over us in the lift lines, or when they try to psych us out, saying, 'Good run' with those sly little grins. Klammer is really tops in that department. He keeps talking to Herbert Plank [Italy's top downhiller] about how good he feels until Plank gets all rattled and yells, 'Shut up!' But Stenmark is above all that. When he shakes hands and congratulates you, you know he is sincere. He doesn't have to intimidate people. Just being Stenmark intimidates people enough."

Perhaps having grown up so far north of the madding crowd helped Stenmark keep his values neat and honest. His home is T√§rnaby (pop. 700) in Swedish Lapland, near the Norwegian border and the Arctic Circle. The sun never sets in summer, and the winters are cold and gloomy. Stenmark grew up skiing "snake lines," as he says, on a 2,000-foot molehill called Laxtj√§llet, which means Salmon Mountain. His father Erik, who owns and operates a bulldozer, was his first coach; after all, the old man had once placed fifth in a Swedish slalom championship. Why didn't Ingemar become a cross-country racer like the rest of the Swedes? Stenmark says that it is too strenuous a sport—a strange attitude coming from the best-conditioned skier and hardest worker on the Swedish team.

When Stenmark joined his small, tight-knit national team of half a dozen racers three years ago, the alpine division of the Swedish Ski Association was so poor that the racers had to travel by bus or train to get to the World Cup races. For Stenmark, the trip from Tärnaby to Kitzbühel took 48 hours. But even after he became famous and the Swedes got a pool of supporting equipment manufacturers going, Stenmark refused all favors. Last October, when the team returned from training camp in Italy, Stenmark was given a ticket for a faster and smoother train ride home, while his teammates had to travel by bus. One of them had hurt his back. Stenmark switched tickets and rode the bus himself.

Last year, after Stenmark had finally dethroned four-time World Cup champion Gustav Thoeni, T√§rnaby threw a party for Stenmark and presented him with a hunting knife, whose handle was carved from a reindeer antler. Last summer he was awarded a special gold medal by King Carl XVI Gustaf in a private audience—about the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Swedish citizen. But he was not exempt from military service.

"Usually I spend my summers running with my dog Zorro, and riding my bicycle 20 or 30 miles a day," he says. "And I like to go fishing at the lakes near Tärnaby. But last July I had to go into the army for three months. Military service is sometimes good for conditioning, but sometimes it is not. Shooting and crawling on the belly is not quite the right training for ski racing."

This season, Stenmark certainly cannot afford to crawl down a race course. In the competition for the overall World Cup, the indomitable Klammer could amass 250 points in 10 downhill events alone, one more than Stenmark needed last year to win. And there are a bunch of Italian contenders, like Piero Gros, Thoeni and Fausto Radici, plus the tiny Swiss, Hemmi. Now, last but not least, there is the kid from White Pass. "I can't any longer afford to have any slow runs," says Stenmark. "It's not so easy to catch Phil anymore."


After Ingemar Stenmark won the title, Swedish King Carl Gustaf presented him with a gold medal.


After Phil Mahre won one race, the uniform supplier presented him with two cases of champagne.