SEATTLE — In February, athletes from around the world will gather in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Some of them will be fortunate to experience one of the most special moments in sports — the chance to step atop a podium and be awarded an Olympic gold medal.
Phil Mahre knows the feeling.
In 1984, Mahre was part of the U.S. Olympic team in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. On a historic day for American skiing, not to mention the Mahre family of White Pass, he won the gold medal in the men’s slalom, finishing .21 seconds ahead of his twin brother, Steve, who received the silver.
Now, winning a ski race was nothing new for Phil Mahre, who ended his career with 27 World Cup victories — second all-time among U.S. skiers to current national team member Bode Miller — in addition to 10 World Cup season titles.
But for Mahre, an Olympic gold medal would surpass everything he accomplished in skiing, both at the time and in retrospect.
“The farther you get away from your career, the more you realize how much it meant to you,” said the 52-year-old Mahre, who choked up while recounting his Olympic memories at a recent media event in Seattle.
“When you’re doing it, I don’t think you take the time to understand how much it means,” he said. “But the farther you get away from it in age and in years, the more you look back and realize how special that time was. And it seems like the older I get, the more emotional I get.”
It took Mahre a few hours after the race to begin grasping the magnitude of his victory.
“I’d raced against these same people throughout my career, and I’d won in my career against these same people,” he said. “So when I won (in Sarajevo) it was like, ‘What’s so special about this? It’s just another win.’
“But when I received my medal, it became a whole different deal and it changed completely the way I looked at my career. Prior to that it was always, ‘I did this, I accomplished this.’ It was always me, me, me. But as they started to play the national anthem (during the medal ceremony), I realized, ‘This (medal) is not just mine, it’s America’s.’
“All the things that went through my mind on the awards platform were phenomenal for me. I realized there and then that had it not been for America, my Olympic dream would never have taken place.”
The Mahres, he explained, were not a wealthy family. Father Dave Mahre managed the White Pass ski area, and with nine children there was simply not enough money to train two budding world-class skiers. Support had to come from the outside, and it did through organizations like the United States Olympic Committee and various corporate backers.
Knowing this, Mahre today has gratitude for “everybody who ever wished me luck, everybody who ever donated to the Olympic movement, the sponsors, coaches, family and friends. All those people were standing on the podium with me,” he said.
Mahre won his gold medal on Feb. 19, 1984, which became memorable for another reason. On that same day, his wife, Holly, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son they named Alexander.
It was, Mahre said, “a very, very emotional day for me.”
Today Mahre lives on a 50-acre spread outside Yakima. He is “kind of semi-retired,” he said, the payoff from some savvy investments, mostly real estate, in his peak earning years.
To keep busy, he joins Steve as an overseer at the Mahre Training Center in Deer Valley, Utah, where skiers of all abilities join the Mahre brothers for three- and five-day winter training sessions. He also co-owns a sign company in Yakima and gives occasional speeches, often at corporate gatherings where he inspires audiences with accounts of his Olympic victory.
Otherwise, he considers himself “an average guy, the next-door neighbor.” He is “comfortable with the limelight and the notoriety, but I don’t really care for it. It’s not something I have to have.”
Similarly, he said, “I can’t base my life around the gold medal. People say, ‘My goal in life is to win a gold medal.’ But if you win one, then life’s over. And if you don’t win one, life’s over. So it’s a dead-end goal.”
What happened in Sarajevo 25 years ago “is something I’ll always cherish and always have, but it doesn’t define me,” he said. “It’s not who I am per se.”
Then again, there is a residual effect to an Olympic gold medal that is probably unlike any other trophy or award in sports. To this day, Mahre is remembered not so much for what he did throughout a remarkably successful skiing career, but for what he accomplished on a single day on the snowy slopes outside Sarajevo.
Here’s the proof. At the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Mahre won the silver medal in the slalom. An outstanding achievement, no doubt, but one few people recall.
The lingering brilliance of a gold medal “is there for a long time,” he acknowledged. “And if you’re ever having a bad day, you can just plug in the tape and you’re a gold medalist. And then you feel great again.”