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Phil Mahre to Make Comback

Phil Mahre to Make Comback

News
By Joe Cutts
posted: 10/12/2006

We know what you're thinking. The last time an American racing legend tried a midlife comeback, it ended in disaster. But Phil Mahre, who hopes to qualify for the US Alpine Nationals in either 2007 or 2008, has no plans to run any speed events. Racing against the nation's fastest 20-year-olds is hair-raising enough at his age (49). Too old for a comeback? "Fifty isn't old, Mahre told us. "People may think it is, but it's not. My dad went up Everest at age 54 and 56, and if he can climb Everest, I can do this. "

Mahre, winner of three World Cup overall titles before retiring at age 25, quietly showed up at a FIS-level race last spring at Mt. Hood, and, taking his place at the back of the pack, where his point totals put him, finished third, fifth and eighth with one DNF in four races. He refuses to take preferential treatment from the Ski Team, and whether he can duplicate those results against tougher fields this winter and rack up enough points to qualify for a shot at his eighth national title remains to be seen. But he'll always have one key advantage over the kids: He's Phil Mahre.

We caught up to him in September, on the verge of his first season out of retirement, to find out what he's thinking, and whether he really believes he has a shot at another U.S. Nationals. [pagebreak]

Q: The kids are grown, the nest is empty: Most guys grab a fishing pole and ease into a quiet retirement—maybe do some traveling. What's up with wanting to measure yourself against the best young racers in the country at your age?

A: I've been kicking it around for years, and I finally just said it's time to go for it. I turned 49 in May, and the plan is to give myself this year and next year to get it done. If it happens this year, great. That'd be a pretty tough road at this point, going from ground zero, to get the points required to qualify for Nationals in a single winter. It'd be one thing if I had strings pulled for me and petitioned to get into races that I haven't earned the right to be in, but that's not the way I want to go about it. It's just something I had to try. If I make it I make it; if I don't, fine.

Q: But you're Phil Mahre, not some unknown kid. Aren't you entitled to the benefit of the doubt that you can compete at the NorAm level?

A: The Ski Team called to say, hey, we could get you a start in some of those early season NorAms. But I don't to have any strings pulled. I just feel, when you're starting out all over again, that you need to do it like anyone else would do it. If it was anyone else, they would have to go through the system and make it on their own accord, and that's how I want to do it. Plus, I don't want to have to answer to people who might be saying, well, my kid would've gotten your spot if you didn't get special treatment. This way, nobody can gripe or second-guess. Does what you did 22 years ago have some bearing on this? Yes and no. But you should still have to go through it like anybody else.

Q: You were a guy walked away while you were at the top of your game and still very much in your prime. How is it you couldn't find the will to compete at age 25, but now you can at 49?

A: Skiing was no longer important. I had two kids already, a family—my priorities had changed. The will to be the best in the world at ski racing was no longer a driving force. Now the kids are all grown and it's time for me to become a kid again, to be a little selfish for myself. Family life is great, but you kind of put other things in life on hold in some respects in order to do stuff with your kids. [pagebreak]

Q: You were a K2 guy in your day, back when K2 was a player in racing. And K2 is still an American brand based in Washington. Will you go back?

A: I was on K2s at the Mt. Hood race, but I don't know right now where I'll land. I'll go to Europe in October and do some testing. I've been talking Volkl, too. It's key to find enough support that I can do this seven days a week. If I've got to go back to spending time skiing corporate clients, I won't have the time I need to train properly. I've also been getting back into car racing lately, and there's the possibility that I could find a package deal where I'm representing the same sponsor 12 months of the year in two different venues.

Q: You're like the Rip Van Winkle of ski racing. A lot has changed while you've been away. Will you be able to adjust to the radical changes in equipment and technique?

A: The technique hasn't changed that much. The skis have made it easier. GS is not that much different. It's a cleaner turn now. Used to be you had to wait till a point in the turn where you could start to carve and then carve through the bottom of the turn. Now you're carving the whole turn. Slalom is much different. The skis are much shorter, and you're cross-blocking instead of clearing. I've certainly had more of a struggle with slalom than with GS at this point, but practice will help.

Q: Can a 50 year-old-body withstand the rigors of training, racing and occasionally crashing?

A: I ran into Dr. (Richard) Steadman in Vail a little while back, and he said I was definitely making a good decision to stay away from the speed events, where, at my age, there would be some limitations. There's still risk in any discipline. You could tear up a knee or hurt yourself pretty good, but I don't see a chance that I'll be seriously debilitated skiing in the disciplines I'll be competing in.[pagebreak]

Q: Bill Johnson was your teammate at Sarajevo, and his comeback led to disastrous, debilitating injury. We have to ask, because there are obvious parallels: Aren't you afraid this could end in similar catastrophe?

A: Our situations are completely different. Billy was down and out. He had lost everything, and he felt the only way to get back was to get into ski racing again and make some money. He had some strings pulled to get into races he probably wasn't ready for. Plus, I don't think he was in the best of shape, and that probably caught up to him. I don't need to do this to make money. I don't know if this is a midlife crisis or an awakening or what, but even though I'm almost 50 now, I've always been a kid at heart. I don't feel any older than 25. It's like I'm stuck in a time warp. So why not go out and have some fun? Billy's situation was completely different. The tragedy in Billy's situation was that he had no chance of ever getting back to the World Cup or the Olympic level, and he thought that was what he was going to do, and I think that pushed him to the point where he got injured. I don't see this as getting back to the same level.

Q: What were your expectations, going to the late-season race at Mt. Hood to kick off your comeback? You must have been pleased with your results.

A: It was way beyond my expectations to be in the top 10 in every run I finished. I went there thinking maybe I could finish 20th or 30th — make the flip. I just wanted to start early second run and get a decent course. Then first run, I'm in second place. To be honest, that course wasn't a good indication of anything. The GS was flat. You got in your tuck after the third gate and you got out of it at the finish. That was the most difficult thing: getting out of your tuck after a minute and 20 seconds of being in it. The slalom was a better test. I found myself using a mix of old technique with the new—clearing some gates, cross-blocking others—but I did all right. The point is to get some miles in, get some good training, and build the point profile to make it to Nationals next year. I won't rule out this year, but that's a stretch.

Q: Is this a mission? Are you doing this for 50-year-olds everywhere?

A: People I know are always saying, "When is he going to grow up? Well, 50 is not old. People may think it is, but it's not. My dad went up Everest at age 54 and 56, and if can climb Everest, I can do this.

Q: So be honest. Step back from your situation and handicap it. A 50-year-old guy, formerly the best in the world at what he does, takes another shot at it. It's like Bjorn Borg announcing he'll make a comeback. How high can you hope to go?

A: "U.S. Nationals is a doable deal. World Cup or Olympics, those are probably out of the question. But look at Martina Navratilova. At age 49, she's in the (doubles) finals at the U.S. Open. If you take care of your body and you have the drive and the spirit and the will, you can do great things. The biggest hurdle would be not to the have that desire or will. You have to have that drive or inner spark. That's why I got out of the sport. I didn't have that inner spark any more. Now I do. And when I set goals, I'm the kind of person that tries to attain them to the absolute best of my ability. I do whatever it takes. grow up? Well, 50 is not old. People may think it is, but it's not. My dad went up Everest at age 54 and 56, and if can climb Everest, I can do this.

Q: So be honest. Step back from your situation and handicap it. A 50-year-old guy, formerly the best in the world at what he does, takes another shot at it. It's like Bjorn Borg announcing he'll make a comeback. How high can you hope to go?

A: "U.S. Nationals is a doable deal. World Cup or Olympics, those are probably out of the question. But look at Martina Navratilova. At age 49, she's in the (doubles) finals at the U.S. Open. If you take care of your body and you have the drive and the spirit and the will, you can do great things. The biggest hurdle would be not to the have that desire or will. You have to have that drive or inner spark. That's why I got out of the sport. I didn't have that inner spark any more. Now I do. And when I set goals, I'm the kind of person that tries to attain them to the absolute best of my ability. I do whatever it takes.

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