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USA's Julia Mancuso celebrates her bronze medal win in the women's super combined skiing at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Julia Mancuso wins bronze in Super Combined

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Julia Mancuso, the winningest women's alpine skier in U.S. Olympic history, didn't need extra inspiration Monday to begin her fourth Winter Olympics.

But the mercurial ski racer from Squaw Valley carried something special into the super combined event at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center: the death of her maternal grandfather.

"He's in the heavens now, so I'm looking up to him right now," she said after securing a surprising bronze medal in the downhill-slalom race that showcases the world's most versatile skiers.

"This is for my grandpa."

Mancuso, 29, has dedicated the Sochi Games to Denny Tuffanelli, a Bay Area physician who died a year ago at age 83.

But as her competitors know, watch out for Super Jules when it comes to the big events.

"The Olympics is really my redemption and the moment when I can make my season better," Mancuso said.

She came to Sochi with a questionable resume from the World Cup season. Just like Mancuso did the previous two Olympics.

But racing in spring-like conditions that she loves, Mancuso quickly looked like a different racer tearing through the morning downhill with the segment's fastest time. Four hours later, she had her first slalom race in a year.

Mancuso scratched her way to the podium against seasoned technical skiers. Only Maria Hoefl-Reisch of Germany--a three-time gold medalist--and Nicole Hosp of Austria could beat her.

Mancuso missed the silver medal by .13 of a second, and held off Slovenia's Tina Maze for the bronze by .10 of a second.

The performance could propel Mancuso to another level of stardom after spending her career in the shadow of Lindsey Vonn, whose injured knee kept her out of the Sochi Games.

For the first time, Mancuso has the stage to herself. She showed Monday she knows what to do with it.

Mancuso won two silver medals at the Vancouver Games to become the first American woman to earn three Olympic medals in alpine skiing. Now she has four--and counting.

The women's downhill is scheduled Wednesday and the Californian brimming with confidence is among the favorites now.

To put her four Olympic medals into context, Picabo Street and Vonn, the names most associated with U.S. ski racing, each have two.

"Julia does this at Olympics," said Mammoth's Stacey Cook, who skied off course in the downhill to end her day. "You can't count her out in anything."

And yet, almost everyone did just that before the Sochi Games. Mancuso struggled so much she stepped off the tour in December to regroup in Lake Tahoe. Part of the problem involved boots and skis. She finally realized to let it go and just ski.

"I've always just had that real belief that I can do it," Mancuso said. With "everyone being a little skeptical and knowing in my heart that I can do it was kind of like crossing the finish line and say, 'See, it works.' Believing in yourself really works."

After the downhill, Mancuso plans to ski the Super-G on Saturday and the giant slalom on Feb. 18.

By now the ski world should expect something special from the free spirit who once raced with a tiara.

Eight years ago in Turin, Italy, Mancuso won a gold medal in the giant slalom to earn the only alpine hardware for the U.S. women's team.

She has won only seven World Cup races in 15 years, but has five World Championship medals to go with those shiny Olympic medallions.

Yet, many had doubts about the slalom segment Monday. Considering her meager showing in the technical event, it was understandable.

Mancuso had raced 15 slaloms since Vancouver. Her best finish was 20th. She failed to finish five times and didn't qualify to the finals six other times.

But there was Mancuso deep in concentration at the slalom starting gate, orange helmet buried in her lap. She told herself to stay calm. "Ski with your heart, Julia."

"And I skied my heart out," Mancuso said. "That was really tough. I knew I just had to give my best shot. It sure didn't feel good. I definitely had moments in my mind where I was thinking this is not going to be good enough."

As she made the final plunge across the finish line, Mancuso realized she had done it again.

Just another Olympic moment for her to enjoy.

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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