Silver streak: Mancuso thriving in Vonn's Olympic-sized shadow
Julia Mancuso has taken two surprise silver medals in Vancouver
She was overlooked prior to the Games after a "crappy year" in 2009
Mancuso could conceivably come away with a stunning four medals
WHISTLER, B.C. -- The truth? It's tempting to say that we - those of us disseminate our words through magazines, websites, newspapers and television -- missed on Julia Mancuso. That we spent the better part of a year hyping Lindsey Vonn as the star-in-waiting of the 2010 Olympics and cruelly overlooked Mancuso, whose giant slalom gold from Turin in 2006 gave her one more Olympic medal than Vonn had won in two trips to the Games.
You could say that miss is self-evident. On Thursday afternoon in the Olympic super combined at Whistler, Mancuso skied a stylish downhill run and followed that with a brilliant, improbable slalom to win a silver medal behind Germany's Maria Riesch. Vonn, whose pressurized downhill gold on Wednesday had (appropriately) overshadowed Mancuso's silver in that event, led after the downhill portion of the combined but straddled a slalom gate two-thirds of the way down the hill and failed to finish.
Two days into the 2010 Olympic Alpine skiing competition, Vonn has a gold medal and Mancuso two silvers. Vonn's was expected, which did not make it any easier -- in fact it probably made it harder. Mancuso's categorically were not. A quick statistical summary: In the last two years Vonn has won 18 World Cup races and two World Cup overall titles, while Mancuso has won not a single World Cup race. Vonn has become the most successful U.S. women's skier in history (I am loathe to the use the word "best" anymore; Mancuso is now the first U.S. woman with three career Olympic alpine ski racing medals), while Mancuso had disappeared until this week.
And it is here that Mancuso is supposed to follow the hoary paradigm of sports and media and claim disrespect for being overlooked. Except that she will not do it. "You know," she said after Thursday's race, "I've been struggling. And I wanted to come in and ski my best races. It wasn't about trying to get media attention that I didn't deserve." Think about that line for a second; she's saying we didn't miss on her, which athletes never say.
As for attention heaped on Vonn (no small part of it by SI, which had her on the cover of the Olympic preview and featured in the Swimsuit issue), Mancuso said, "She really does deserve it. She's had an incredible career so far, winning two overalls, and having like 30-plus'' -- 31 to be exact -- "World Cup wins, that's pretty impressive. So she deserves the attention.''
But Mancuso added: "Our ski team in general deserved a little more attention. Because a lot of media was all about Lindsey."
Vonn is now in a more delicate position, just as she was in the starting gate on Wednesday, before she delivered a Klammer-esque performance to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic downhill. It was a breathtaking moment, the drama compounded by her shin injury, and yet 24 hours later she was being asked to assess the work of Mancuso, who has been her rival since both of them were barely teenagers. "Her struggling in the past few years is maybe motivating her more," said Vonn. "And she's coming here as an underdog, no one really expecting her to do anything. And I think that helps, when you don't have any pressure, that helps to ski aggressively. It's definitely a lot different when you have everyone looking at you, expecting you to do things. It's not as easy."
Absolutely true. In Wednesday's downhill, any medal for Mancuso was cause for celebration. Anything less than gold for Vonn -- who had struggled four years ago in Turin with a back injury from a nasty training crash -- would have been a disappointment. Whether it was wise for Vonn to express this reality is another matter, and to her credit, she didn't stop there. "I'm psyched for her," Vonn said. "She's doing an awesome job. And it's great to see the American flag up there on the podium."
There are sides to the pressure Vonn is under. Without question it's more challenging to perform when it's win-or-failure. At the same time, Vonn has scored major endorsements deals and earned significant celebrity based on what she did before Vancouver. You take the good with the bad, and Vonn's downhill gold remains the Alpine moment of the Games.
And it's far from over. Both Vonn and Mancuso will ski the Super G on Saturday. It's another speed race, and Vonn crushed the downhill and then won the downhill portion of the combined. She has won three of the six World Cup Super-G races this season and hasn't finished lower than third in any of them. "I've been skiing well on this hill in speed events," Vonn said after blowing out of the combined. She is absolutely the Super-G favorite.
As for Mancuso, she hasn't finished higher than 10th in a Super-G since March 2008, but she's clearly on a roll and will be a threat in giant slalom as well, defending her Olympic title. She could conceivably win four Olympic medals in these Games, a staggering feat.
Mancuso's achievements here are being routinely categorized as the gutsy performances of a stone-cold big race performer. She's that, for sure. But that's superficial praise. Mancuso is also a brilliant, instinctive skier with classic touch. She was good a long time ago and stayed that way. Not only did she win an Olympic gold medal in '06, but she finished third in the World Cup overall standings in 2007.
Yet even as Mancuso was winning, she was fighting injury issues. She had surgery for a torn labrum in her right hip after the 2006 Olympics, which led to gradually worsening back problems that were eventually diagnosed as two compressed discs. By the 2009 season she was ineffective and devoid of confidence, and it showed on the race hill -- her best World Cup finish was a sixth in a giant slalom. "I had a crappy year," said Mancuso before this season began. "But I did want to go out and prove to myself and everyone else that I can still do it."
Slowly she got better, as athletes do, when the public isn't watching. She spent two months of the spring and summer at the house of her father, Ciro, in Maui, working with a kinesiologist and a chiropractor and doing pilates. "I started to feel better than I have in a long time," she said. "Then I went to Chile [for a training camp in August] and skied great."
Her skiing improved, but her results did not; her best finish on the World Cup this year was third in a super combined at St. Moritz in Jan. 29, a race that Vonn won. Shortly after that, Mancuso went to a private training camp near her father's ski home in Squaw Valley. "She split off from the team and came up to Squaw Valley to get away from all the madenss," said Ciro Mancuso after Thursday's race. "She had one coach [Chris Knight], plus her technician and kinesiologist and pilates coach. Squaw just opened their doors to Julia; it was her own private camp.''
The snow at Squaw Valley was much like it has been in Whistler -- weather-ravaged, changeable, loose and granular. "Really good for me," says Julia Mancuso. She ate home-cooked food and relaxed before the storm. And somehow she found her speed again.
A small entourage of supporters has watched her win two silvers, including her paternal grandparents, both 84 and spry. They wave red flags with Mancuso's image and watch her do unexpected things.
Or maybe they're not unexpected at all.