John F. Russell: 'Get back' on the race track

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— I've spent the past 40 years learning that there are things I can do, but probably shouldn't.

I can sing, but if you've ever heard me belt out Garth Brooks' "I've Got Friends" (or at least I did before I sang this song) at a karaoke bar, you might agree that I should limit my singing engagements.

But, apparently, 49-year-old Phil Mahre prefers the Beatles' "Get Back" and doesn't care if he's doing things he probably shouldn't.

He's won World Cup titles, collected Olympic medals and traveled around the world building a reputation as one of the greatest American ski racers of all time. He retired from competitive skiing in 1985 at the age of 26, but currently is attempting a monumental comeback.

There is no doubt Phil Mahre can still ski, but should he?

That's a question that popped into my head this week as I watched the 1984 Olympic champion go head-to-head with racers who weren't even born when he won the gold medal in the slalom in Sarajevo.

After winning at the Olympics, the Rocky Mountain Trophy Series race in Steamboat is the last place I expected to see a skier with Mahre's credentials. But there he was on Thursday, racing down the slopes against more than 100 teenagers in an entry-level race.

On the surface, his appearance seems harmless enough. He's just another name in a field of ski racers who are hoping to end up at the U.S. National Alpine Skiing Championships someday.

But another great skier taught us a few years ago that there are risks tied to every comeback - especially for skiers who already have proven themselves. You see, they are not just racing against other skiers, but against their own legacy.

In March 2001, then-40-year-old Bill Johnson suffered a life-threatening crash at a downhill in Big Mountain, Mont., during an attempt to make the 2002 Olympic team. He spent several weeks in a coma and suffered a severe head injury that has changed his life. Forget the failed comeback. Today, many people remember Johnson for the crash rather than for his terrific World Cup career and the run at the 1984 Olympic Games that earned him the gold.

Mahre insists his situation is different. He isn't trying to make the Olympic team; he isn't risking his life on dangerous downhill courses or pulling strings to get into higher-level events. He asked a doctor to evaluate his health before he entered his first race and says he physically can meet the demands of racing.

He isn't seeking medals, but simply wants to prove he can make it to the national championships at 50 - and, more importantly, that age shouldn't be a limiting factor. Maybe he shouldn't do it, but Mahre's set the standard his entire life. Now, he's proving that's not going to change with age.

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