March 30, 2012

WINTER PARK, Colo. (AP) -- The breaking waves on the beaches of Hawaii are beckoning Julia Mancuso.

After months of speeding down steep slopes, the Olympic gold medalist is eager - beyond eager, even - to swap the skis for her surf board and hit her favorite spots.

Before retreating to the sand and surf, though, Mancuso has a couple of final winter housekeeping items to tie up.

Like winning another U.S. championship crown.

Mancuso flew through a sun-splashed course on Friday, conquering the soft snow to defend her super-G title. Later in the day, on an even mushier surface, Dustin Cook of Canada crashed the party at nationals and won the men's super-G, ending the reign of Tommy Ford.

The 28-year-old Mancuso finished in a time of 1 minute, 10.38 seconds as she beat Leanne Smith by 1.2 seconds. Laurenne Ross was third.

That's national title No. 14 for Mancuso, the most ever by a U.S. skier.

"It's always fun to win U.S. titles. But I think I want 30," Mancuso said, laughing.

Mancuso of Squaw Valley, Calif., was coming off a stellar World Cup season in which she won two events and finished on the podium in another four races. She was fourth in the overall competition, winding up 960 points behind teammate Lindsey Vonn, who ran away from everyone.

To think, Mancuso almost came home early.

In early February, a homesick Mancuso nearly high-tailed it out of Europe to head back to Squaw Valley for some rest and relaxation. She was all set to skip the races in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Just pack up and split.

But Mancuso was persuaded to stay. Good thing, too, because she ended up winning the super-G at that venue. Then, a week later, she captured a parallel slalom event in Moscow.

"I don't think anyone realizes how tough it is to go from different town to different town week after every week," said Mancuso, who splits her offseason between Squaw and Hawaii. "I never had a day where I could fly back to the U.S. without missing a race. If I'm looking out for the overall title or my career, I can't really skip a week. That's really grueling."

What kept her going was simple - skiing.

"I did what I knew how to do: Go to World Cup after World Cup and eventually the end of the season came," said Mancuso, who has three Olympic medals, including gold in the giant slalom from the 2006 Turin Games. "I love to ski and that's what keeps me going every week. But there were moments where I wanted to go home and ski powder at Squaw."

Now, she has that chance.

Mancuso will try to defend her giant slalom crown at nationals on Saturday and then head to Squaw Valley for a U.S. ski team fundraiser next weekend. Joining her there will be her boyfriend, fellow skier Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.

"Nice for him to come and help raise money for the U.S. ski team," Mancuso chuckled.

Soon after, it's off to the beaches.

"It's nice to step away just in general, no matter where I am - if it's in Squaw or on a beach in Hawaii," she said. "When you don't have a schedule or don't have to be at a certain place at any certain time, it's just so relaxing and relieving."

As for next season, Mancuso said she's embracing the changes set to go into effect that will alter the hourglass shape of giant slalom skis. It's an attempt to make the sport safer.

A handful of World Cup skiers have a beef with skiing's governing body for imposing such a move, saying the switch will set the discipline back by decades.

"It's really to my advantage. I have the opportunity to just use my athletic ability, instead of being dependent on equipment," Mancuso said. "Everyone's adapting and I adapt really fast. Having the thinner skis, you can't rely on side cut, so it's a lot of technique and that's one of my strengths."

In the men's race, Cook had a sensational run to edge Ford by 0.04 seconds. Brennan Rubie and Jared Goldberg tied for third.

By taking this event, Cook is worried he might not be invited back. This is the second time he's won an event at the U.S. championships. He also blazed to the downhill title last season.

"I really like Colorado," said Cook, who's from Ottawa and counts himself as a big Senators hockey fan. "I'm pumped to beat (Ford)."

These days, that's not easy.

Even when Ford loses, he still wins.

His time from his winning slalom performance on Thursday, coupled with the split he turned in during super-G on Friday, earned him the combined crown. That's his eighth national crown as he quickly closes the gap on Mancuso.

Ford has been so solid the last few springs on snow with the consistency of mashed potatoes that his teammates have dubbed him, "Nationals Maestro."

"You've got to ski fast to beat me here," Ford said with a grin. "Soft snow is good for me."

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