After Tumbles From On High, U.S. Skier Finds a Way Down

Gold medalist Julia Mancuso, of the United States,kisses her medal during the medal ceremony for the Women's Giant Slalom at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Friday Feb. 24, 2006.
Gold medalist Julia Mancuso, of the United States,kisses her medal during the medal ceremony for the Women's Giant Slalom at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Friday Feb. 24, 2006. (Greg Baker - AP)
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy -- Maybe it was taking off the tiara that did it. The U.S. Alpine ski team has struggled with pressure and its own pretensions in these Olympics, but Julia Mancuso found a way to ski free of both. She swapped her princess headgear for a helmet and laid down a couple of giant slalom runs that reflected the change, resulting in gold.

The tiara was a jokey gift from one of Mancuso's coaches earlier this season, to signify that she's a "queen" of the mountain. Mancuso has worn it in races ever since as a good luck charm. But in the giant slalom, she was required to wear a helmet, and a tiara on top of that would have looked silly -- if it didn't already -- plus "it isn't so great for aerodynamics," she said.

To Mancuso, the tiara was just a harmless piece of pasteboard jewelry, and a talisman. But others, such as the Austrian team, could be pardoned if they saw in it a hint of attitude from the American Alpiners. The U.S. motto, "Best in the World" has not sat well with rivals, and may even have incited them. Given how poorly the swagger with which Americans entered the Games has paid off, it was probably just as well that the tiara didn't make it to the starting gate.

Most of the American skiers here have been either too uptight, or not wound tightly enough. Despite their ambitious goal of eight medals, Americans had won just one by Friday, the relatively unheralded Ted Ligety's gold in the men's combined. But Mancuso was able to find the right emotional pitch. "I just sort of let go of the big Olympic hype," she said.

It's something most of her teammates have been unable to do, and it's worth asking why. It may be that Mancuso has a fortunate makeup, one that allowed her to cope with the enormous expectations better than most. Mancuso is an unselfconscious 21-year-old from Olympic Valley, Calif., with blankets of hair parted in about three different ways, and an airy, I-don't-give-a-rip attitude. She arrived at Sestriere for the giant slalom without her credential -- she left it on a hook back in her quarters and forgot to hang it around her neck when she left for the race.

"It's just about the snow, about conquering the hill," she said earlier in the Games. "It's about yourself, the snow, the gates, and the finish line. I think some people lose track of that."

Mancuso's carefree demeanor and aggression on skis are the result of an unusual upbringing. When she was 5, her father, Ciro, was arrested for operating a marijuana smuggling ring. While he fought a series of legal battles, and eventually served five years in prison, she escaped the household tensions by skiing.

A horde of family was present to see Mancuso win her gold, including both of her parents, now divorced, her sister April, and a grandfather who hobbled through the snow on two canes. Her father has been a devoted supporter of her career, she observed, without living through her or pressing for results. "We have a great relationship," she says. "He's supported me in my skiing and he likes to come along, but he's never pressured me into doing well. He's been willing to step back and help me and not make it about my performance."

It's interesting to note that the only two medals from the Alpine team have come from skiers who got relatively little attention, compared to the tidal wave of publicity for Bode Miller. Mancuso, like Ligety, had never won a major international race before -- although she won bronze medals in the giant slalom and Super-G at last year's world championships and has a trio of podium finishes in World Cup races this season.

Mancuso had the advantage of skiing without the white-hot glare of a lot of cameras. And she had the luxury of skiing at a time in the Games when expectations for the Americans had been lowered by a series of disappointments.

Maybe the Alpiners will take a lesson from it. The women came into Turin confident they had a shot at winning medals, and they mouthed off about the Austrian team, which they called "scared." Mancuso proclaimed the Americans every bit the Austrian equals. But then they were consistently foiled by bad luck, poor weather and postponements. Lindsey Kildow, the best hope in the downhill, crashed in training, and the shutout continued from there, while the Austrian women won six medals.

As the events continued to pass without medals, Mancuso got antsy. The giant slalom was her best event -- and her last chance. "You know, I've been waiting two weeks for the GS and I was always looking at that event to get a medal, and it was at the end, unfortunately. Or fortunately," she said. "In the other events everyone was saying we were supposed to get medals. We all wanted medals, and we were all trying our best. But that's how skiing goes; sometimes you have to be a bit lucky. Some things went wrong that weren't in our control. I was just excited to finally race the GS and show the world what I could do."

And she did. At the end of the day, Mancuso put her tiara back on, and this time, it seemed perfectly appropriate. She wore it for the medal ceremony.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company