Olympics / Sports

Slopes spring eternal for three-time medalist Julia Mancuso

SOCHI, Russia -- Three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso doesn't give herself much chance in Monday's super-combined event at Rosa Khutor.

It's the first women's Olympic Alpine event and, with U.S. star Lindsey Vonn out because of a knee injury, a lot is expected from Mancuso.

Mancuso is feeling creaky, though, and doesn't know if her body can hold up for three races in one day. She'll be more of a threat in the speedier downhill Wednesday and super-giant slalom Saturday.

The super combined includes a morning downhill and two afternoon runs of slalom.

Slalom gets more difficult the older you get, and Mancuso is 29.

She doesn't race the event anymore on the World Cup circuit.

"Slalom is kind of like a game of luck," Mancuso said this week. "Roll the dice and it's on, roll the dice and it's off."

Of course, Mancuso said much the same thing four years ago in Vancouver.

She didn't like her chances in the combined then, either, and won the silver medal.

The one thing you can't deny about Mancuso is her ability to perform on the big stage.

She doesn't do much between Olympics and world championship events.

The gap between her and Vonn in World Cup wins is 59 to seven. Vonn's sustained dominance has made her, inarguably, the greatest female racer in U.S. history. And Vonn needs only four more World Cup wins to pass Austria's Annemarie Moser-Proell on the women's all-time victory list.

The Olympics, though, are a different nut. Mancuso has more Alpine medals than Vonn, three to two. That makes Mancuso the all-time Alpine leader among American women.

Mancuso won her gold medal first, in Turin, four years before Vonn won in Vancouver.

Mancuso can only guess why she hasn't had more sustained success.

As a kid growing up in Squaw Valley, Calif., she didn't pay attention to the international ski circuit. She dreamed only of winning the Winter Olympics, which were held at Squaw Valley in 1960.

"I knew the World Cup existed," she said, "but I didn't know we had such a big tour and that would be my life, I guess."

The ski tour is a mental grind and requires sustained focus.

"She's sort of going through the motions in the season," Picabo Street, the 1998 Olympic super-G champion, said this week of Mancuso. "But she is so prepared to be here. Now, it's like she said. It's between her ears."

Mancuso has been compared to Vonn since they were teen-star racers. Mancuso, like Vonn, has model looks and star power. Everyone knows Vonn is dating Tiger Woods, but Mancuso once had a relationship with Norway skiing star Aksel Lund Svindal.

Vonn did a swimsuit shoot for Sports Illustrated, and Mancuso recently graced the cover of "Outside" magazine, dressed in a skintight racing outfit.

The subhead on the story summed up Mancuso perfectly: "Always the underdog. Always on the podium."

One of Mancuso's problems was the way she won her gold medal, in giant slalom, at the 2006 Games.

Her victory came in near whiteout conditions at the end of a negative Alpine experience dominated by Bode Miller's five-event Olympic implosion.

Mancuso and Ted Ligety were the only Americans to medal (both gold) in an Olympics dominated by the Austrians.

"I think I was mostly disappointed the whole time," Mancuso recalled. "I won gold, but that was the very last race. ... Our team was expected to get a lot of medals. But only me and Ted were able to pull it off, so it was strange energy."

Mancuso's glory got buried in a blizzard. Four years later, in much more dramatic conditions, Vonn stole downhill gold from Mancuso in broad Olympic daylight.

That's not the case in Sochi because Vonn isn't here. Now we find out if Mancuso needs her rival for competitive fuel.

"We definitely miss Lindsey," Mancuso said. "She's always the one to beat. You definitely feel she's not here. But I think it also leaves a lot of opportunities for everyone else too."

Opportunity knocks, for Mancuso and the world, in Monday's combined start gates.

Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch is the defending champion in combined and giant slalom. Vonn's absence makes her a contender in all five races.

Canada's Marie-Michele Gagnon may be the best North American threat in the combined. She's trying to become the first Canadian to win gold in Alpine since Kerrin Lee-Gartner won the 1992 Olympic downhill.

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