By Dianna Waggoner
February 12, 1979 12:00 PM

Up to now U.S. men have never won a gold medal in Olympic skiing. But for the 1980 winter games, the U.S. is readying a double-barreled threat, 21-year-old twins Phil and Steve Mahre from Yakima, Wash. They are identical, and Phil is the older by four minutes (“I’ve been trying to catch him ever since,” jokes Steve) and so far the faster of the two.

Ranked second in world overall standings last year, Phil since 1976 has won five World Cup races; Steve has won one and wound up a respectable 23rd last year. The numbers may seem modest (there are 22 World Cup events each year), but they are significant: Before Phil, Billy Kidd was the only male U.S. skier to win as many as two.

What makes the Mahre twins so good? For one thing, sibling rivalry. “When we were kids, we were each other’s only racing competition,” Steve says. “Phil wouldn’t be where he is without me—and I give him half the credit for where I am now.”

The twins, who have two brothers and five sisters, had little choice but to ski. At the age of 4 the family moved to White Pass (pop. 27), 45 miles outside of Yakima, when their father became manager of the area’s ski resort. Phil won his first small-fry race when he was 8, and Steve won it the following year. Spurring each other on, Phil was named to the U.S. Olympic team at age 16. Steve, more easygoing, made it at 17. Any resentment at being named a year later? “No,” says Steve, matter-of-factly. “Phil earned it.”

In 1973 near tragedy struck. Phil was caught in a White Pass avalanche which broke his right leg. The next year, while kidding around on a playground slide, he broke it again. Seven months later he returned to racing and won the national giant slalom championship in February 1975. The next year he took fifth in the same event at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

The Mahres have an on-again, off-again training routine that has been sharply criticized. “Skiing isn’t our whole life—it’s just a part of it,” admits Phil, who adds, “Actually, we train as hard as the Europeans. It’s just that they train all year round. That’s all they think about. There’s no way I’m going to ski in the summer. I like to motocross and water-ski, too.”

Neither twin is keen about the traveling, which takes them to Austria, France, Germany and Italy each season. “It’s part of the ballgame,” says Phil. “But it gets to be a hassle”—this year especially so. Both twins were married to high school sweethearts last summer, and, as Steve puts it, “Nothing else in the world is as good as Yakima.”

Once he’s in the chute at the start of a race, either Mahre is all business. Phil’s second in the special slalom at Garmisch, Germany last month boosted him to fourth in this year’s world standings. Steve to date is 37th overall. Although Ingemar Stenmark, the stylish slalom specialist, and his Swiss counterpart, Peter Luescher, are favorites, the U.S. twins will be breathing down their necks.

“We trained with the Swedish team in Australia last fall,” recalls Steve. “We set up a few gates, skied down the hills and got advice from both coaches—theirs and ours. All of a sudden there wasn’t any way they could stop us. We’re part of the gang now.”