KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Late Monday afternoon in the mountains north of the Olympic city of Sochi, U.S. alpine ski racer Julia Mancuso leaned forward on her ski poles at the top of a steep slalom race course. She was the last contending racer to ski the slalom portion of the two-run Olympic combined, a breakneck downhill followed by a precise slalom. She had won the downhill portion, her stronger event, but now she faced a vertical wall of slender gates stuck into a surface that was alternately rutted and gouged by the 26 women who had preceded her, equal parts ice and slush.
And furthermore: Since taking the silver medal in the combined at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Mancuso had participated in 10 combined events on skiing’s World Cup, and had not once finished in the top three. She had started 15 full, two-run slalom races in that time period and completed just four; her best finish had been 20th. The last time she had pushed out of a slalom start house and made it to the bottom was 351 days before today, in the slalom portion of a combined in Meribel, France. Or, as Alex Hoedlmoser, head of the U.S. women’s team put it when asked the last time Mancuso had stared down such a gnarly slalom, “It’s been a while.”
This is why, after Mancuso had won the morning downhill portion of the event over such proven slalom skiers as Tina Maze of Slovenia (.86 seconds) and defending gold medalist Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany (1.04 seconds), Maze said to Mancuso, “Get ready for some slalom.” (U.S. ski team press attaché Doug Haney said the words said “very lightly,” yet even so they would have reflected the spirit of the event. Mancuso was leading, yet the likes of Maze had to feel that she was vulnerable).
But Mancuso is different. She came into the race with a respectable seven World Cup victories in her 15-year professional career, but with three Olympic medals, more than any U.S. alpine racer in history. Her best finish in any World Cup race this season was seventh. Think of her like this: She is the baseball player who hits singles and doubles in July and home runs in the World Series. She is the quarterback who manages games in the regular season and lights up the scoreboard in the playoffs. She is the college basketball team that barely makes the NCAA Tournament and then streaks into the Final Four. The more that is asked, the more she delivers.
So in fading daylight under hulking spotlight towers, Mancuso slashed down the mountainside on the line that separates abandon from caution, taking just enough tactical risks to sustain speed, but expressing just enough caution to remain upright. “It was a very difficult slalom run,” she would say afterward. “I did have moments in my mind where I was thinking, this is not going to be good enough.” She flashed across the blue finish line painted in the snow, throwing her skis forward, and finished .10 seconds in front of Maze for the bronze medal behind gold medalist Hoefl-Riesch and Nicole Hosp of Austria, who took the silver.
The medal shoved Mancuso further up the lists of accomplished U.S. alpine racers and Winter Olympians. She now has won four Olympic medals (one gold, two silvers and Monday’s bronze), twice as many as any U.S. female ski racer (the better-known Lindsey Vonn and Picabo Street are among those with two), and just two fewer than long track speedskater Bonnie Blair, the most decorated U.S. female winter Olympian. She joined Blair and short track speedskater Apolo Ohono as the only U.S. athletes to win medals in three consecutive winter Olympics. Only four women have more Olympic ski racing medals.
This dizzying collection of superlatives was not lost on Mancuso, whose workaday career has been largely overshadowed by Vonn’s U.S. record 59 World Cup wins and her general celebrity status. “Skiing and growing up around somebody like Lindsey, who is just amazing on the World Cup, breaking records left and right, to have something that I can break records in at the same time is also fun, and exciting for me.” And there is much more to come. Based on her performance in the downhill portion of the combined, Mancuso is now the clear favorite to win the downhill gold medal on Wednesday (it will be run over the same course).
Hosp, who rallied from eighth place with a brilliant slalom run to take the silver, said, “We all know that Julia can ski in the Olympics, and do very well.”
There had been a buzz around Mancuso since the middle of the last week, not only because of her proven track record in the Games, but because the proximity of the Olympic racing courses to the Black Sea produces a type of soft, moist snow on which Mancuso has traditionally excelled. (Mancuso talked about this in an SI.com story).
She delivered on that promise with by winning the downhill portion of the combined in warm (nearly 50 degrees) conditions that softened the racing surface and slowed many competitors. “Julia’s got an amazing feeling on the snow,” said British racer Chemmy Alcott, a close friend of Mancuso’s. “She looked like she was skiing a normal course.”
Yet Mancuso was uncertain whether she had put enough of a gap on racers like Maze, Hosp and Hoefl-Riesch, all of whom are better slalom racers than she is. “I thought it was a little too small of a margin [to stay ahead of] the really good slalom skiers,” said Mancuso.
Mancuso skis all five events, but at age 29, she has become most effective at downhill and Super-G, the so-called “speed” events (this despite the fact that she won her gold medal in giant slalom in 2006). She has tried to keep a hand in slalom training, but said this week, “Slalom for me is kind of like a game of luck. Roll the dice and it’s on or roll the dice and it’s off. I don’t train a lot of slalom, because it’s not so easy on my body.”
Hoedelmoser said, “You train [slalom], but not as a first priority. You train Super-G, you train GS, then you get a couple of slalom gates at the end of the day. The last couple of years she really hasn’t been doing slalom, seriously.”
With temperatures in the springlike levels of late morning, racers took aim at the medals in the afternoon. In combined, the slowest downhillers race first, concluding with the leader, in this case Mancuso. It is a like a child’s game of King of the Hill, with successive racers knocking the leader. The first racer to make a major statement was Hosp, going into the lead by 1.10 seconds eight racers from the end. Three skiers later, Hoefl-Riesch passed her by .40 and then Maze slipped into third before Swiss Lara Gut missed a gate.
Mancuso made a decision to ski for a medal, not necessarily for gold, on such a tough race course. “Definitely if the hill was easier, I would have been thinking I’m going for the gold,” said Mancuso. “But it was tough. I wanted to make it down with a clean run. I don’t know if I could do any better. I definitely could have risked more, but without the slalom mileage, it’s really tough to snap off turns and make up speed. It’s more just survive.”
As she rose to full height past the finish, Mancuso looked up at the finish board and saw the “Number 3” in yellow letters. She pumped both arms wildly while looking at family gathered in the grandstand.
Like any great athlete who excels uncommonly in the biggest moments, she struggles to define her strengths. While talking to U.S. media after the race, she shouted giddily, “Crossing the finish line I was saying `See, it works! Believing in yourself really works.’”
Ahead of her on the podium, Hoefl-Riesch put herself into a very elite class with her third Olympic medal (she won the combined and slalom in Vancouver four years ago). Only Janica Kostelic of Croatia and Kjetil-Andre Aamodt of Norway have won more (four each). “I don’t think so much about all the statistics and rankings,” said Hoefl-Riesch Monday. “I just focus on this medal, this day.”
They will give out another set of medals Wednesday in the downhill. Hoefl-Riesch will be there, and so will Mancuso.