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Vonn's crash derails unlucky teammate Mancuso


WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Measure these odds: Julia Mancuso is prepared to push out of the start house in the first of two runs of the Olympic giant slalom on Wednesday morning. She is skier No. 18, and at this point in the competition -- bib numbers 16 through 30 -- the racers are sent off every 60 seconds, a shorter interval than originally planned, to hurry the race in bad weather. For the fastest racers, the run takes a little more than 1:15. This means that when one skier is approaching the final pitch of the course, another is starting. Two racers on course at the same time.

The skier before Mancuso is Lindsey Vonn. Between them they have won four medals at these Games -- Vonn a gold and a bronze, Mancuso two silvers, part of an American-record eight medals in a single Games, six more than in Turin. But there is a subtext, and you know that subtext. Quickly: Longtime rivals, both 25 years old, Mancuso first to win Olympic gold (in 2006), Vonn dominates afterward and comes to Vancouver as the Snow Queen. Then Mancuso does surprisingly well, stealing some of the spotlight. Story line shifts, media members wonder if they had hyped Vonn too much. (They didn't; Mancuso was a surprise and said so, repeatedly. She also said that Vonn deserved the attention).

But in a story that appears in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Mancuso also said, "It really feels like not many people know about my gold medal [from Turin]." And she might have been right: Memories are short, especially when it comes to the Olympics. Name a 2008 Summer Olympian other than Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. I'll wait.

Some minor wounds were exposed. I wrote the following two paragraphs in an story that was posted on Tuesday night:

"[Mancuso] has played a strange role in Whistler. Mancuso has been largely free of the pressure teammate Lindsey Vonn was under (a situation that won't necessarily be true on Wednesday in the GS, where Mancuso will be closely watched), but her performances have inevitably been viewed and judged through the prism of Vonn's. 'It's such a popularity contest,' Mancuso told on Sunday, while drinking a latte at a picnic table in the sunshine outside a coffee shop and eating a massive, sloppy cinnamon bun with her hands. ('My off day breakfast,' she called it.)

"In the wider view, Mancuso is uncomfortable (resentful is too strong, but barely) with Vonn's influence on the team's dynamic. (For the record, Vonn does most of her training -- on snow and off -- apart from the other U.S. skiers). 'Our team is struggling, as a group,' says Mancuso. 'People are having a hard time reaching their potential because it's such a struggle for attention. You come to meetings after races and it's like it's a bad day if Lindsey didn't do well.'

So there was a little tension. Not a lot. A little.

Back to the race: If a skier falls while on the course, the next racer is held in the starting gate until the course is cleared. This doesn't always work to perfection. If a skier falls close to the one-minute interval and the next skier is sent off, that skier is stopped in mid-run by an official waving a yellow flag if it's determined that the fallen racer cannot safely clear the course in time. The flagged skier then makes her way back to the top of the course to jump in whenever she can. This is usually a huge disadvantage because deteriorating snow conditions make the track slower; in addition, the racer has already expended emotional energy starting once and physical energy running some portion of the course.

Getting flagged is exceptionally unlucky. But in ski racing it happens.

Vonn, whose only really weak discipline is giant slalom (she has never made a World Cup podium), tore down the snowy course, leading Elisabeth Goergl of Austria by .15 at the first interval, .16 at the second and .35 at the third. It was a stunning performance. She had just 10 gates -- less than 20 seconds -- remaining when she snagged her left edge, smacked her right knee into her chin and went buzzing into the safety netting at the side of the hill.

Her fall occurred two seconds after Mancuso started. Mancuso kicked out onto the course as Vonn was rolling to a stop and made it at least 30 seconds, perhaps as much as 45 seconds, down the course before she was flagged off. She skied down to Vonn's crash site and approached U.S. coach Jim Tracy. "I asked if she was OK," Mancuso said. "She was OK." (According to the U.S. ski team, Vonn has a "non-displaced fracture of the proximal phalanx of the small finger on her right hand." The team said a decision had not been made as of late Wednesday afternoon on whether she will take part in Friday's slalom.)

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Back to the original mandate: Measure those odds. Not only does Mancuso get flagged in the Olympic giant slalom. She gets flagged after Vonn crashes.

It's important to say here that this was an enormous coincidence and nothing more. Vonn didn't crash on purpose. Mancuso didn't accuse Vonn of sabotaging her giant slalom. "It's just the circumstances," Mancuso said.

That doesn't make it any easier.

After being flagged, Mancuso was driven on a snowmobile to the top of the course. (Even that was controversial; women's race referee Atle Skaardal of Norway said later that she was supposed to go to the bottom and take a gondola up). On her first run she had been slightly ahead of Goergl on her first split and behind on the second. By the time she got back to the starting gate, 12 more racers had gone down the course. Going off 31st, Mancuso skied well, but slow snow left her 1.30 behind Goergl, in 18th place. It would take an epic performance for Mancuso to reach the podium. Adding to the intrigue, that performance will come on Thursday. Wednesday's scheduled second run was postponed by fog.

The usually ebullient Mancuso finished her do-over in tears. "Tears of frustration," she said. "I know that the conditions got slower. The starting numbers past 20, nobody was punching it in there." (True -- the highest bib number among the top 10 finishers in the first run was Goergl's No. 16). "It's the Olympics," Mancuso continued. "You put everything into that one run, and you expect to get to the bottom and then have a couple hours to go up and do it again, and this is just not how it works, normally."

Mancuso was angry at the way her situation was managed by race officials. Between runs she posted to her Twitter feed: "I was flagged in gs. That is bulls---. Well now its time to use that anger and fight second run." That tweet quickly disappeared, and in a later one Mancuso said, "That yellow flag in GS was such ... I just want to scream. I'm really miffed. Anyway I've got to take that energy and focus it for second run."

Miffed. That's funny.

When she spoke to reporters after the race, Mancuso said, "Just the whole situation, it could have been dealt with so much better. In my mind, there are so many more scenarios that can happen ... The fact that I wasn't flagged earlier, or they weren't able to get her out of the way in time ..."

Referee Skaardal said, "It was impossible to stop her at the start because Lindsey Vonn, the racer before her, had an intermediate time just over one minute. You need to understand that the jury member needs one or two or three seconds to consider the situation before he calls a start/stop. At that time Mancuso was already on her way, so it was impossible to stop her at the start. When she's on course our first priority is to let her race all the way down."

Vonn said, "I honestly feel terrible for Julia. It's absolutely not what I wanted. I wanted to finish. I wanted to have a good run and by no means did I want that to happen to Julia. I try to support Julia as much as I support all the other teammates. I've been racing with Julia since I was a little kid and yes, we're competitors, but I always support her. It definitely has hurt me that she has said some negative things about me. All I can do is continue to support her the way I always have been and hope that she reciprocates that. I'm always proud that an American is doing well, and I was proud of her for being on the podium in downhill and super combined. It just bums me out."

That makes two bummed-out U.S skiers. Mancuso was asked by reporters to expand on her comments to and declined. Her disappointment in the race was manifestly evident. "I wish I could have this morning happen over," Mancuso said. "That was probably the worst possible thing that could happen in the Olympics, to get flagged in your defending gold medal run."

That it happened because Lindsey Vonn crashed in front of her doesn't make it worse. It just makes it more poignant.