SOCHI, Russia -- The American team scattered as it entered Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday night, some waving excitedly to friends and relatives, some hamming it up for NBC's cameras, still others simply moved by understandable exuberance.
But Julia Mancuso stayed in formation, smiling, waving, marching. True to her history, she was comfortable letting others step out.
The 29-year-old, now a four-time Olympian, may be the unsung hero on a U.S. Alpine ski team whose praises have been sung loudly during the weeks leading to these 2014 Winter Games.
Better that the spotlight should shine on America's other top medal contenders, Bode Miller, Ted Ligety or teenage sensation Mikaela Shiffrin. Or even on the biggest name in U.S. women's skiing, the injured and absent Lindsay Vonn.
"My Olympic experience is really exciting," she conceded Thursday when asked if she were feeling anything special this fourth time through the (five-)ringer. "I like to feel the energy. But it doesn't matter if it's my first time or my fourth time, I'm going to feel the same."
That's surprising given her resume. Everyone who follows skiing, for example, knows that Miller has won more Olympic medals than any American skier in history, five. But how many know Mancuso is second with three?
The fact that the focus and the pressure lie elsewhere, however, doesn't mean that Mancuso feels no urgency to ski well in Sochi. She has, in fact, set a lofty goal for herself.
"I feel confident I'll win a medal," she said. "I'm more competitive this time. Before I just wanted to do my best. Now I really want to win a gold medal. I am more driven about that than ever."
She won one surprisingly in the giant slalom at Turin in 2006. Four years later she followed up at Vancouver with a pair of silver medals -- in the downhill and the combined.
Despite her Olympic track record, a victory in any of the disciplines here would be something of an aberration. Mancuso has not skied particularly well this season, failing to crack the top ten in any of her first 11 events.
But she looked sharp on Thursday during a test run for Monday's women's downhill and was impressed by what she saw of the difficult course at Krasnaya Polyana.
"This course is technical and faster than I thought," she said. "It's definitely faster than I thought."
And regardless of her subpar season, she vowed to be prepared for it, just as she was after a similar slump that preceded her 2006 gold medal.
"When I get into big races like this," she said, "I feel like I'm living a dream. And that makes it easier for me to bring out my best. I look at these Olympics and think I've never been in a better place."
Still, Mancuso, who has jokingly attributed her success to "lucky underwear", did step out of character recently when she posed in various lingerie for some racy photos in GQ magazine. If that weren't unusual enough, she then Tweeted one to her followers.
It was an uncharacteristic display -- in more ways than one -- for a world-class skier who appears to enjoy and prosper in the sport's shadows. But that serene exterior doesn't mean there's nothing going on inside, she insisted.
"Maybe from someone else's perspective, if they're reading the newspapers or whatever, the focus isn't on me," she said recently, "but if you're in my world, there's a lot of focus on me."
And she knows, from her own experience if nothing else, that the skiers who win Olympic gold are usually those who are mentally prepared to do so.
"There are so many good skiers out there who just can't pull it together on race day," she said. "It's always been about being mentally there. You also see racers that they just can't ski (well), but they just kill it. It's 99 percent mental."
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