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That's the Spirit!

March 06, 2006
March 06, 2006

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March 6, 2006

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That's the Spirit!

Fighting off the doldrums, Julia Mancuso attacked the giant slalom and won gold, bringing some luster to a much-maligned U.S. team

She didn't want toski; she wanted to go home. It was a cold Wednesday afternoon in the mountainswest of Turin, and in two days U.S. Alpine skier Julia Mancuso was scheduled torace the Olympic giant slalom, the last of her four events at the Games and theone in which she had the best chance for a medal. But she wanted nothing morethan to load up the 27-foot recreational vehicle in which she travels the WorldCup circuit, leave the resort village of Sestriere behind and put the Olympicsin her slipstream.

It had been a trying two weeks. First Mancuso had battled the U.S. OlympicCommittee and the U.S. Ski Team when they would not help her with a powersource for her RV. Then she had struggled to mediocre finishes in the downhill,the combined and the Super G on courses not suited to her strengths. Finally,on this day she was crushed when her boyfriend, fellow U.S. skier Steve Nyman,left Sestriere after an unsubtle shove from team coaches, who Nyman said toldhim, "You might want to give Julia some space."

This is an article from the March 6, 2006 issue Original Layout

Mancuso, 21, hadcome to the Games with live dreams. She had been a double bronze medalist atthe 2005 world championships, and after a misplaced pair of custom bootssabotaged the first half of this World Cup season, she had podium finishes inthree of her six races leading into Turin. Now her energy was gone. "Somany things upset me here," Mancuso said. "I wanted to just leave. Ilost the Olympic spirit."

She stayed, ofcourse, and she found the spirit last Friday on an epic powder day like so manyshe had enjoyed as a child skiing with her family in the mountains above LakeTahoe, in California. She found it with two full-gas runs of giant slalom downa gnarly mountainside overlooking Sestriere, winning a gold medal by theblowout margin of .67 of a second over Tanja Poutiainen of Finland. At thebottom she fell into the arms of teammate Stacey Cook and screeched, "Ican't believe I just won the Olympics!"

Hers was the firstOlympic skiing medal by a U.S. woman since Picabo Street won the Super G earlyin the 1998 Games in Nagano. It was also the first victory by an American womanin the giant slalom since Debbie Armstrong won the event at Sarajevo in '84,just weeks before Mancuso was born--a stark measure of long-term U.S. Alpinefrustration.

Mancuso's goldpulled the U.S. out of a nine-day slide that followed Ted Ligety's victory inthe combined on Valentine's Day. But any chance of adding to the team's twomedals evaporated in the final Alpine race last Saturday, when Ligety wasdisqualified from the first run of the slalom for straddling a gate and BodeMiller completed an ignominious 0-for-5 Olympics by missing a gate and not evenfinishing the opening run. (At the other end of the spectrum, Benjamin Raich'ssecond gold led Austria to a sweep in the slalom and a record 14 Alpinemedals.)

It comes as nosurprise that Mancuso would grind through blowing snow, the U.S. slump and herown angst. She has been blasting through challenges since the October morningin 1989 when she awoke to find her family's sprawling mountain home in SquawValley, Calif., surrounded by police cars and her mother, Andrea, telling her,"You don't have to go to school today, O.K.? We're going to go out tobreakfast."

That was the dayher father, Ciro, was pulled from the shower and arrested for running aninternational marijuana-smuggling operation dating back to the early 1970s. Heeventually pleaded guilty to charges of operating a continuing criminalenterprise and tax evasion, and was released from a Reno prison after 17 monthswhen he agreed to cooperate with investigators. However, when his testimony didnot result in a conviction against a coconspirator in a 1995 trial, Ciro had toserve another four years in a federal minimum-security prison in Yankton, S.D.Now a real-estate developer in the Lake Tahoe area, Ciro sat in a Sestrierecafé two days before the start of the Games and said, "You do things whenyou're young, and they come back to haunt you when you're older."

Julia endured theturbulence, which included her parents' separation in 1992 and divorce in '94,on skis. "She took everything out on the slopes," says Andrea, "andlook at the outcome."

Mancuso and hersisters, April, now 25, and Sarah, now 16, lived mostly with Andrea. "Agreat mom who did a great job with us," says Julia. Ciro was by Julia'sside when she was a young racer, but they drifted apart while he was in prison.They have reconnected, however, and Julia has spent much of her summervacations in recent years at his house on the north shore of Maui. "I wasnever mad at my father for going away," she says. Ciro, 57, joined hisdaughter for the last week of the World Cup circuit before the Olympics andfollowed her to Turin, he in a car and Julia in her RV with April.

There was noshortage of family supporting Julia at the Games. Andrea brought her parentsand her fiancé; Ciro brought his wife, Katie, and their daughter, Taly, 2. Ciroalso helped resolve the RV power-supply dispute, which ensued when Juliaarrived in Sestriere on Feb. 9 and parked her rig next to Miller's RV and racerDaron Rahlves's tour bus in a small, heavily guarded parking lot behind theMiramonte Hotel, headquarters for the USOC. Miller and Rahlves were allowedaccess to the hotel's electricity, but Mancuso was not. The USOC says that wasbecause the men had requested parking and power last summer, well ahead ofMancuso's request in January, and the hotel could not supply all threevehicles. So Ciro bought a gas generator to run the RV's electrical systems;the day after Rahlves left on Feb. 22, Mancuso finally was allowed to tap intothe hotel's power. That was the night before she won her gold medal.

Mancuso also drewcomfort in spending time with Nyman, 24, who stayed in Sestriere after skiinghis three events--his highest finish was a 19th in the downhill--the last ofwhich was on Feb. 18. Mancuso and Nyman (who learned to ski at Sundance in Utahand mowed Robert Redford's lawn in the summer) met four years ago and begandating shortly thereafter. Their time together during the World Cup season islimited, but in late January they met in Austria and spent one night at a hotelin Innsbruck; in no time Mancuso got hot and made her first three podiums ofthe season in a nine-day span.

"That wasme," Nyman says. "I'll take credit."

"Sure,"says Mancuso when informed of his comments, rolling her eyes. "Hetransferred his energy to me."

More likelyMancuso was finally comfortable again after getting back the custom boots shehad left in a hotel room in Canada in early December. A replacement pair didn'tfeel quite right, and because of her travel schedule it took several weeks forthe lost boots to catch up to her. Without them, she had severe soreness in herhips and knees and finished no higher than fifth.

Still, it wasNyman's company that Mancuso craved as the Olympic giant slalom approached. Shehad finished seventh in a flattish downhill that favored heavier racers(Mancuso is only 5'6", 139 pounds) and 11th in a too-easy, fog-shortenedSuper G. "He was thinking about leaving because he was over thisplace," says Mancuso. "But I told him, 'I still have my GS, pleasestay.'"

Nyman planned todo just that, but he says that on Feb. 21, three days before Mancuso's race,three men's coaches approached him and suggested that he should spend less timewith Mancuso because he was a distraction. He was offered a room away from theOlympic Village and away from Mancuso's RV. Already tired of Sestriere andmildly intimidated, he went home to Utah--and then beat himself up over it."They didn't tell me to leave, but they hinted at it," says Nyman."I should have stayed. I should have supported Julia. What I did washurtful to her."

Says Mancuso,"Coaches should never interfere in stuff like that."

Through aspokesman, U.S. Ski Team officials declined to comment.

racing in heavysnow and terrible light--but on a hard, icy course that held up--Mancuso tookthe giant slalom lead on the first run by .18 of a second over slalom goldmedalist Anja Pärson of Sweden. Back in Utah, Nyman awakened at 1:30 a.m. localtime and followed the race on a website that showed live interval timing but noimages. In the second run, 31/2 hours later, Mancuso skied from the pressurizednumber 30 start position, reserved for the first-run leader. Eschewing acautious approach that might have guaranteed a bronze medal, Mancuso took anaggressive line and nearly won the second run too. The scoreboard froze hertime and No. 1 standing in yellow digits, and Mancuso fell into the powder atthe edge of the finish corral.

Two hours afterher emotional victory, Mancuso stood outside her RV as April excitedly bangedon a window from the inside of the vehicle. Julia had nearly left the Olympics,and now she wore gold. "You know, you just keep on keepin' on," shesaid. "That's always worked for me. You do that all the time in ski racing.And in life." She shrugged her shoulders as snowflakes piled up on her grayU.S. team hat and at the ends of her red hair.

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"You just keep on keepin' on," Mancuso said."That's always worked for me. You do that all the time in ski racing. Andin life."
PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty WELCOMETURN - Given how her Olympics had gone--finishing seventh, ninth and 11th inher first three events--not even Mancuso could have predicted her dominatingwin last Saturday.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERPHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty PROUDPOP - Ciro missed a chunk of Julia's childhood, but he was able to share herbig moment--and light up her RV--in Sestriere.PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty BYE-BYEBODE - Miller (center) missed a gate in the opening run of the slalom, endinghis Games in ignominious fashion.