By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; D01
Julia Mancuso's image, calculated or not, was important to her. Winning an Olympic gold medal with a tiara on her head, reveling in the idea that her coaches called her a "princess," surfing and swimming and being the picture of good health in the waves of Maui, posing seductively in lingerie and ski boots -- it all became part of who she was and is, "probably the most honest athlete out there," according to Chemmy Alcott of Great Britain, her good friend and fellow World Cup skier.
Mancuso was to carry that image into this month's Vancouver Olympics. Mancuso, not Lindsey Vonn, is the only female American Alpine skier with an Olympic medal to her credit, the gold in the giant slalom won four years ago in the Italian village of Sestriere. Mancuso is the skier featured in fashion shoots in outdoors magazines, her hair done up, her clothes just so, the one with the blog and the Web site that features a "shopping" section.
A year ago, though, this was not at all what she was able to project. Her image -- fresh-faced golden girl from the hills around Lake Tahoe, Calif. -- was being tarnished by injuries that led to poor performances, not to mention near collapse.
"She was crying all the time at the end of her races," said Kazuko Ikeda, a former Olympic skier from Japan who now works closely as a Pilates instructor and coach with Mancuso. "People who have known her a long time, they said they never saw her like that, crying so much. It was very hard."
Mancuso enters the Olympics in something of an awkward position. Four years ago, her dominant, aggressive, gold medal-winning performance was overshadowed by the implosion of fellow American Bode Miller, who was supposed to win multiple medals and spectacularly won none. She is now 25 -- in what should be the prime of her career, the same age as multi-medal favorite Vonn -- yet she is coming off two injury-filled seasons, seasons filled with far more pain than progress. In 21 World Cup races this year, she has finished no better than eighth. She has failed to finish or failed to qualify for the second run nine times.
How, then, can she enhance her image in Vancouver when tough times have hit her leading up to what might have been a marquee Olympics?
"Timing is everything," Mancuso said.Injuries and pain
This is a concept about which Mancuso has thought a great deal over the past few years. Her best season on the World Cup circuit came after her performance in the Olympics, when she finished third in the overall standings -- the rankings that show the most well-rounded skiers on the planet. She seemed to be progressing. No one outside of Europe, where skiing can seem like a lifestyle and Mancuso has an avid following, seemed to notice.
"There wasn't a lot of attention on ski racing because the Olympics were over, and it was like zero attention in the U.S.," Mancuso said. "It's almost like people don't even remember in the U.S. They have no idea.
"Then the next year, I still had some great results, but for some reason, it was really difficult because I was getting a lot of criticism because my year before was so good. And it's always like: How do you balance staying positive with yourself? Because I feel like that had a lot to do with the next year being even worse, because my confidence -- even though I ended up eighth in the world overall, I had a great season -- but it wasn't good enough for some people, and I let that get to me."
Her back also got to her. So did her hip. During nearly all of the 2009 season, Mancuso had one problem or another. Again, the timing. Why, in the season prior to an Olympic year, were her performances deteriorating? From 2006 through 2008, she had 18 podium finishes -- those in the top three -- across four disciplines. In 2009, when she could have built on the image of an Olympic champion as another Games approached, she finished no race better than sixth.
"The whole season was like: 'Do I keep going? Do I not keep going?' " she said. "Something would bring me down right when things were going well again. That was the most difficult part. . . . It was just a long process. What would take most healthy people a day to learn would take me four days or almost a week. It was a two-month period where things really sucked."
The bottom came at the world championships in Val d'Isere, France. She crashed in the super-G. Then, as she approached the finish area in the downhill leg of a super-combined event, nearly two seconds off the pace, she skied off course. She dropped out of the next day's downhill. She was beaten.
"I think it got to the stage where Julia didn't realize that you could ski pain-free," Alcott said. "She was fighting it so much because she loves the sport, and she loves to ski, but there was this block in her. Maybe she couldn't feel it consciously, but subconsciously, there was a big block there."Into the water
This season, then, has been about removing that block. Part of Mancuso's prescription for healing, be it physical or mental, is heading home -- to Hawaii, where she has lived for five years. There, she takes up the kinds of activities that would seem taboo for world-class athletes -- think stand-up paddle surfing -- and tries to, as she said, "get in the water every day." Alcott, likely Mancuso's best friend on the World Cup circuit, joined her in Maui last offseason and continued her surfing apprenticeship under Mancuso, one that began during a trip to Bali a couple of years ago.
Those lessons, too, give a glimpse into why the pain and suffering of the previous few seasons could eat at Mancuso. She is a natural-born athlete.
"She's not the best teacher," Alcott said. "She just thinks that everyone should be as naturally talented as she is. She's just like, 'Just copy how I do it.' So a couple of times I got stuck out on the reef."
In-season, Mancuso says, she thrives on speed. In the offseason, she thrives on maintaining good health and being outdoors. So she has incorporated time in the water into her regular workout routine. "She works so hard," Ikeda said, "but she wants to figure out how to have fun when she's doing it."
"I don't really need a vacation when I get home, because I'm home and it is a vacation," Mancuso said. "I'm psyched to start working out again and playing. It makes everything a lot easier."
That, then, is the new image she is forging, with her third Olympics just ahead. She is healthy, she said, but now less a princess and more a survivor, just trying to get her timing back. And she has stopped worrying, she said, about what people want her image to be.
"Just by having such a bad season now, I'm able to build off little things and take the good out of it and sort of start over and not even think about what's good for me, what people would say is a good result for me," Mancuso said. "I'm going into it as a new person."
That new person knows a bit more than she did entering the Turin Games. She understands, of course, what it feels like to have a defining moment of your career. She also understands that she doesn't want that moment to define her. Even the people who remember she won gold four years ago might not understand what she has been through since. The complete picture -- the success, the injuries, the frustration, the rebuilding -- isn't part of her public image, not yet. But it is a part of who she is.
"I guess it taught me a lot about what it feels like to win, too," Mancuso said, "because it sucks to be in the position where you don't even think you can win when you leave the start gate. . . .
"I just have to remember: For me, the biggest thing is just to stay focused on myself, and remember that the year that I won two world championship medals, I went into the season not ranked. Anything is possible, and I know that, even if other people don't."