By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; D01
WHISTLER, B.C. -- Julia Mancuso sat smiling at the bottom of the mountain here Wednesday, already tingling inside, as she began the wait for the woman most likely to beat her, Lindsey Vonn. It has been that way for maybe a decade, since they were teenagers, de facto rivals because they are the best American skiers of their generation. Mancuso would beat Vonn. Vonn would beat Mancuso. Mancuso won an Olympic gold medal, the pinnacle of ski racing. Vonn won World Cup overall championships, the most difficult prize in her sport.
"They've been pushing each other since they were kids," U.S. women's ski coach Jim Tracy said.
The stage Wednesday, though, was different. When Mancuso waited at the bottom of the slope, she held a monstrous lead on the field, threatening to pull an unlikely upset at the Vancouver Games. Vonn stood at the peak, pressure stuffed alongside her in the starting gate, not only because she was skiing with a painful bruised shin but because she was supposed to win the women's downhill -- at the very least -- at the Olympics.
"There was a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectations, coming into these Games," Vonn said.
The exhale afterward, then, was thorough, deep, sweet. When Vonn flew across the finish line, she had crushed Mancuso's time and thrust herself into first place. By the time the rest of the field of 45 competitors had gone, Mancuso had dominated all but her teammate. The result: Vonn had the gold she had worked for her whole life, Mancuso was close behind with an unexpected silver, and the American ski team had a sterling start to an Olympics that is suddenly filled with promise.
"I'm overwhelmed," Vonn said afterward. "This is the best day of my life, by far."
It is also one of the best days ever for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Only twice before had Americans finished first and second in an Olympic Alpine race -- both in 1984, when twins Phil and Steve Mahre won gold and silver, respectively, in the slalom, and Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper did the same in the giant slalom. Before Vonn took her gold Wednesday, no American woman had won the Olympic downhill, the most harrowing race on the women's program.
The pre-Olympic buzz was all Vonn, all the time -- and it only increased when she arrived with her injured shin. But for all the angst and ink spent on that situation, by race day, it was painful, but workable.
"I think she could have skied without a foot and been okay," said her husband, former Olympic skier Thomas Vonn.
Mancuso, though, announced that she, too, was okay. Starting 10th, she skied confidently, crisply, and well. When she reached the bottom, she had beaten the previous best time by .90 of a second -- just short of an eternity in the blink-and-miss-it world of Alpine ski racing.
"I thought, 'That could be a gold medal run,' " said Thomas Vonn, who got on the radio and told his wife what Mancuso had done.
"I think that calmed me down, gave me the kind of focus and intensity that I really needed," Vonn said.
Since her gold medal in the giant slalom four years go in Sestriere, Italy, Mancuso has stumbled, battling injuries, fitness issues and confidence problems. Her best finish in a downhill race this season was eighth, and her last finish in the top three of any World Cup race was two years ago -- on this very hill.
"It's been a long journey," Mancuso said.
Vonn is considered the best American female skier ever. She has won the past two World Cup overall championships, season-long titles that account for success in all of skiing's varied disciplines. On the World Cup circuit, there have been six downhill races this season. Vonn won five of them. Throw in the outside notoriety -- the hype from NBC, the cover of Sports Illustrated, an appearance in the swimsuit issue -- plus the shin injury, and Vonn has been a tightly wound, emotional favorite since she arrived in Canada.
When she stepped in the gate, Thomas Vonn had a good feeling from his wife. At her most nervous moments, he waits with her till the last moment at the top of the mountain. Wednesday, after a soothing pep talk -- "I just tried to make the Olympics not the Olympics," he said -- Lindsey Vonn told him she would be all right. She climbed into the starting gate, Mancuso in her sights.
"I wanted it," Vonn said. "I wanted it more than anything else."
She delivered from the start. Racers are timed at four interval points on the mountain, and Vonn's time was better than Mancuso's at each split -- by .17 of a second, by .43 of a second, then by .83 of a second. When she crossed the finish line, utterly exhausted, she looked to the scoreboard, focused her eyes, saw her time -- 1 minute 44.19 seconds, .56 of a second faster than Mancuso. She looked skyward, screamed, then held her head in her hand.
"Given all the circumstances, it was one of the most clutch runs I've ever seen," Thomas Vonn said. "People basically hanging the medal around her neck before she went out of the start -- that's incredibly hard to deal with."
When the field finished, and the threats were gone, Vonn started to cry. "I've been pretty much bawling for the last two hours straight," she said later. Mancuso, too, found friends, embraced, and cried.
When they returned to the bottom of the course for the flower ceremony, they stood on the podium, each in her own way. Mancuso stepped up, waved her arms in the air, and swayed her hips, a little, sassy dance. Vonn was last, and she climbed on with a powerful stride, then thrust both arms in the air, smiling broadly.
Later, as photographers clicked away, they came back carrying American flags. Mancuso wrapped hers around herself, a patriotic shawl. Vonn struggled to do the same, until Mancuso came over, unfurled the flag, and draped it around the gold medal winner -- her rival, her teammate, her countrywoman -- so they could pose one more time.
"Being on the podium, it's kind of two different stories," Mancuso said. "But we're there together, and we're both representing the U.S., and we're both really proud to be doing that."