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Alpine Notes: Mancuso sets record straight on relationship with Vonn

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Running downhill through the Olympic Alpine Games, with two events left to ski (women's slalom Friday and men's slalom Saturday):

The daily Lindsey Vonn-Julia Mancuso rivalry/friendship/mini-series update:Mancuso was third-fastest in Thursday morning's delayed second run of the giant slalom, which pushed her to 8th in the final standings. It was an honorable finish to a very unlucky event, in which Mancuso was flagged off the course in Wednesday's first run, after Vonn crashed in front of her. Mancuso had been forced to ski 13 spots later, on slower snow, and finished the first run 1.30 seconds behind leader Elisabeth Georgl of Austria, a virtually insurmountable margin. (Goergl won the bronze medal, her second; Germany's 20-year-old Viktoria Revensburg won the race and Slovenia's Tina Maze took silver, her second).

Mancuso took great care to say after the race what she hinted at, but did not say explicitly, on the day before. "It's not [Vonn's] fault at all,'' Mancuso said of the Wednesday incident, which resonated more significantly with media and fans because it was Vonn -- of all people -- who created the delay by crashing out. "She didn't wave the yellow flag. She crashed. Of course she didn't want to crash. That's ridiculous.''

Mancuso won two medals in the Games, silvers in downhill and super combined. Ski racing is famously unpredictable, but Mancuso might have won two other medals: She drew start No. 1 in the Super-G, skiing blind, made a terrible mistake high on the course and then killed the rest of it. And then came the GS drama. "I have two silver medals,'' Mancuso said. "Yeah, it could have been more, but leaving here with any sort of medals clinking around my neck is a dream come true.''

Mancuso, who is finished skiing in these Games, also was overcome by tears three times while talking to U.S. media after the race about her friend, C.R. Johnson, 26, who was killed while free-skiing at Mancuso's native (and beloved) Squaw Valley. "Coming here today, for me, was just, go out and love skiing,'' Mancuso said. "I'm so proud to be from a place, Squaw Valley. There are so many incredible skiers from there. It's just guys going out and living their dream and pushing their limits. Skiing is not a safe sport, all the time, especially when you want to push it. But it's fun. It's a lot of fun. And I love it.''

***

• Vonn will race in Friday's slalom with a splint protecting the non-displaced fracture in her right pinkie finger, suffered at some point in Wednesday's violent crash into the safety netting. It can never be said that Vonn isn't tough: In this season alone she nearly broke her left wrist in a Dec. 28 giant slalom fall in a race in Lienz, Austria; suffered a severe -- and famous -- right shin bruise 10 days before the opening ceremonies for the Olympics; and now, the broken pinkie.

She also crashed in the slalom portion of the super combined here at the Games, bruising assorted body parts.

In seeking a third medal at these Olympics (after gold in downhill and bronze in Super-G), Vonn's slalom is hit or miss -- she can win, or she can fail to qualify for the second run. Since the 2006 Olympic Games, Vonn has raced 32 World Cup slalom races. The tally: Two victories, five podiums and 12 races in which she either didn't finish one of the runs or failed to qualify (based on time) for the second run.

On top of that, her slalom training has been minimal since the shin injury. However: She was ripping in the GS when she crashed, and only 15 seconds from the bottom. So she's going to put herself in the race.

***

• A story I wrote that was posted Tuesday night on SI.com, in which Mancuso suggested that Vonn's dominance was responsible in part for some level of disharmony among U.S. women's team members, became the backdrop of additional storylines a day later.

On Thursday, Mancuso said "It's been taken all out of proportion,'' and teammate Sarah Schleper said the U.S. team is "tight knit,'' and "media reports were overblown.'' OK. I went back and listened to my interview with Mancuso. I'm 100 percent certain I accurately conveyed her feelings at the time, and I didn't lead her into any answers. Mancuso is a 25-year-old woman. She's not being led anywhere by a journalist. Same with Vonn. It's insulting to them to suggest otherwise.

Last word on that: Mancuso and Vonn are both brilliant athletes, among the best in U.S. Olympic history. They represent their country (and their families, friends and sponsors) with passion. They are manifestly different from each other in almost every way and they compete for the same small number of medals, and they're been doing it for more than a decade. They are "teammates'' in a totally individual sport where one athlete's success does not directly affect another's (unlike when Drew Brees is on fire, that's good for Marques Colston). Things occasionally get a little emotional.

***

• The mighty Austrian Ski Team -- think Jamaican sprinters -- has had a lousy Olympics, thus far. Heading into the final two events, Austria has just three medals, all of them by women (bronzes by Elisabeth Goergl in downhill and giant slalom and Andrea Fischbacher's gold in Super-G). The Austrian men's team, which won 14 medals in 2006, does not have a single medal. "We're no machines,'' said veteran Austrian Benni Raich after the men's super combined. "We can't win all the time. ''

Peter Schroecksnadel, chief of the Austrian Ski Federation, said Thursday, "We're not happy about this, but it's a fact. We are used to being number one. [The Olympics] are one day, and a certain moment. You have to perform.''

The Austrians will have four starters in the men's slalom on Saturday. "We have four guys that can win gold,'' said Schroecksnadl, who also made it clear that gold is the only medal that matters at home. In fact, the Austrians have the World Cup slalom leader, Reinfried Herbst, and then three skiers among the next 10 in the standings. That hardly qualifies as four skiers with a shot at gold, even in slalom.

***

• Can Bode Miller win a medal Saturday in the men's slalom? His last podium in a World Cup slalom was on Nov. 16, 2008, in Levi, Finland, where he finished second in what would be his last season running an independent racing operation. His previous podium was almost four years earlier, on Dec. 13, 2004, in Sestriere.

In the 2002 season, when Miller was still primarily a technical event skier (slalom and giant slalom), he won or made the podium in six slaloms. The next year he became a five-event racer, adding downhill and Super-G in pursuit of the World Cup overall title (which he won in 2005 and '08) and his slalom slipped dramatically. In the four years between the Sestriere and Levi podiums, Miller raced 36 slaloms and failed to finish 22 of them.

Yet he retained a passion for the event, and he skied one of the best slaloms of his life to win the gold medal in the combined last Sunday. "Slalom in my mind is the toughest event, and it's at the highest level right now,'' Miller said after that race.

He has quietly worked to get back his slalom mojo and get his equipment dialed in for the event. ``He's put in a lot of work for two years to get his slalom back,'' said U.S. Ski team coach and longtime Miller confidante Forest Carey. "He's really had it for a while, but for some reason, he hasn't been able to put it together in a race.''

That was until last Sunday. Of course, that was one run and the big slalom is two runs. And the field will be flush with slalom specialists who have been waiting more than two weeks for their chance to ski for gold. Still, at this point, you disregard Miller at your own peril.

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