KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — At the finish of a ski race, there is usually room for only one celebrant, and for all the world Monday afternoon here, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, an Olympic champion already, appeared poised to be one again. Only one more competitor, American Julia Mancuso, stood between Hoefl-Riesch and her second consecutive gold in the super combined.
But when Mancuso crossed the finish line and discovered her result — third place, a bronze medal — she thrust her fists in the air and began leaping on her skis. Hoefl-Riesch simultaneously raised her hands to the sky, then let them fall to her head, and then fell to the ground. There was enough happiness to go around.
Mancuso cemented her already solid place in American skiing history, winning the downhill portion of the super combined — which involves one downhill run and one slalom run — and then hanging on through a tough slalom, a discipline she barely skis. The bronze is the fourth medal of her Olympic career, twice as many as any other U.S. woman in Alpine skiing, and it is further proof that in this theater, she has few peers as a competitor.
“I was just thinking stay calm and ski with my heart, and I skied my heart out,” Mancuso said. “That was really tough. It was a really, really difficult slalom run. I knew I just had to give my best shot and 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, but keep fighting.’”
It is her strength, the fight. Mancuso, 29, took a .47 second lead after the morning downhill, run in warm and soft conditions. That result, crushing the field, immediately established her as a favorite in Wednesday’s women’s downhill, an event in which she won silver four years ago in Vancouver.
Mountains of the Olympics
But there was the matter of the slalom run, too, and a reminder that she also took gold in the super combined in Vancouver, behind Hoefl-Riesch. She had not skied a full-length slalom course in nearly a year. Her training is spotty in the event, because she prefers to preserve her body for her strengths: downhill, super-G and giant slalom.
Yet there is no telling what the Olympics do to her.
“She sucks up the spirit of the Games and uses it as motivation, and gets really, really excited about it,” said Alex Hoedelmoser, the head coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team. “She loves to compete here.”
So that she did. Because she was fastest after the downhill, she skied last among the contenders in the slalom. Austria’s Nicole Hosp set the pace with a superb slalom run of 51.07 seconds, but just three skiers later she was passed by Hoefl-Riesch, who won gold in slalom in Vancouver as well.
Keys to the skis
So Mancuso, who led Hoefl-Riesch by 1.04 seconds after the downhill, was left to hang on over a perilous, demanding course that didn’t fit her lack of training.
“Definitely, if the hill was easier, I would be thinking, ‘I’m going for gold,’” Mancuso said. “That was tough, and I really just wanted to make it down with a clean run. I don’t know if I could do any better. I could definitely risk more. But without having the slalom mileage, it’s really tough to snap off turns and try to make up speed. It’s more just survive and get to the finish.”
When she had survived, and finished, she turned around to face the clock. It showed an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 35.15 seconds — .53 behind Hoefl-Riesch, .40 behind Hosp, but a tenth of a second faster than Slovenia’s Tina Maze. In the midst of a World Cup season that has brought her no top-three finishes, she had bronze.
“I’ve always just had that real belief that I can do it,” Mancuso said. “For me putting out these dreams and beliefs that I can come in here and have a medal, and everyone being a little skeptical and just knowing in my heart that I can do it, was kind of like crossing the finish line being like, ‘See, it works! Believing in yourself really works!’”
For Julia Mancuso, at the Olympics, it seems to work every time.