Mancuso ready to step into the spotlight in giant slalom
Conditions are right for Mancuso to repeat her 2006 gold medal win
Mancuso has largely escaped the pressure placed on teammate Lindsey Vonn
She is clearly uncomfortable with Vonn's influence on the team's dynamic
WHISTLER, B.C. -- For the first time in a week, it was snowing Tuesday afternoon in the mountains around Whistler. At least it was trying to snow, as dense, wet flakes turned occasionally to rain and then back again to snow, soaking spectators who were leaving the alpine racing stadium after Carlo Janka's victory for Switzerland in the men's giant slalom. It was a return to the conditions that had postponed the start of ski racing for two days at the beginning of the Games, but it was something else, too: Mancuso Weather.
At the Turin Olympics in 2006, Julia Mancuso, then 21, rescued the U.S. women's ski team from a complete shutout, winning a gold medal in the giant slalom with a second run through heavy snowfall that made midday feel like dusk. Snow accumulated on the course in small piles, reminiscent of Mancuso's native Squaw Valley, where powder is king. Charging down the course, not settling for a sure bronze, Mancuso stretched her lead from .18 to .67 on the second run, nearly winning both halves of the two-run race. (My Sports Illustrated story about that race is here.)
A very long four years have passed since that victory. Yet on Wednesday morning in British Columbia she will ski the Olympic giant slalom again, almost surely in the weather conditions she loves best. Based solely on this season's World Cup results, alpine handicappers would have dismissed her chances, but in these Games she has already won two silver medals, way against form. "I'm really, really looking forward to GS," Mancuso said in an interview with SI.com on Sunday.
She 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 SI.com 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."
There will be no struggle for attention if Mancuso wins the GS -- a victory would make her only the second U.S. woman to win two alpine gold medals. (Andrea Mead Lawrence was the first, winning both the slalom and giant slalom in 1952.) Any medal would make her the first U.S. woman to win three medals in a single Games; she is already the only U.S. woman with three in a career.
It would also extend the U.S. podium onslaught that produced eight medals in the first six races of the games (and landed Mancuso, Bode Miller, Vonn and Andrew Weibrecht on the cover of this week's issue of SI). That medal rush was interrupted on Tuesday, when Miller missed a gate in the first run of the men's giant slalom, an event in which he has struggled all season, and Ted Ligety, ranked first in the World Cup giant slalom entering the Games, finished ninth.
Vonn, who won the downhill on Feb. 17 and finished third in the super-G three days later to earn her first two Olympic medals, will also race in the GS, but it is the weakest of her five events, and she is not expected to be a medal threat.
Mancuso is already the surprise of the Games for the U.S. team, if you accept that the gifted and enigmatic Miller is a contender in any race at any time. Since following her Olympic gold medal with a very good 2007 season (third behind Austrians Nicole Hosp and Marlies Schild in the overall World Cup), Mancuso had been diminished by injuries (particularly by hip surgery in 2006, which led to lower back problems).
But much has changed this season. She is healthy, and she loves the Whistler snow. "I'm a 'feel' skier," Mancuso said. "The snow here is perfect for me -- it's grippy and kind of forgiving. I love this kind of snow. I'm not as good on those real hard, cold courses we race on in Europe."
Mancuso's 10th-place finish in the super-G was a disappointment. She started blind as the very first skier (a position assigned in a random draw among skiers ranked 16-30 in the world), and misjudged a turn high on the course, costing her a huge amount of time, possibly even a medal. "I was killing it," she said. "That one turn ..."
But that 10th-place finish also boosted her world overall ranking to the point where she will start with bib 18 in the giant slalom, much better than she otherwise likely would have gotten. She will also race in a custom speed suit that honors her '06 gold, a clever slice of karma.
Mancuso has been no better than average in giant slalom this season. Her last podium in a World Cup GS race was at Lienz, Austria, in December 2007. This year her best finish was a 13th at Aspen on Thanksgiving weekend (she even lost a pole while racing the first run at Lienz on Dec. 28, the race in which Vonn injured her wrist), but Mancuso says that's getting better. "My GS ...," she says, "It sucks because I was really training well this summer, and then I started messing with my equipment during the season. It's been one of those years, but I don't think the results show how well I'm capable of skiing in giant slalom."
Her timing has been perfect so far. Despite her resentment of American personality culture, the Olympics embrace athletes once every four years, and she has twice been good at the right time. As the day wears on in Whistler, snow is still falling. More good timing for Mancuso.