By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; D01
WHISTLER, B.C. -- For so many athletes, those with the highest hopes, the Olympics are about expectations and how to manage them, about pressure and how to suppress it. Maria Riesch found that out in Wednesday's women's downhill, when she failed to handle the hopes of all of Germany and couldn't win a medal. Lindsey Vonn's moment of self-discovery came over that same course on that same day, when she shielded herself from both injury and the eyes of her home nation to win gold.
Then, there was Julia Mancuso. In 2006, she won gold in the giant slalom. In the seasons since, she has largely struggled. She came here with little fanfare, and when she began her Olympics by winning silver in the downhill -- behind only Vonn -- she could have been done with it, satisfied.
"I think she loves being the underdog," said Chemmy Alcott of Britain, one of Mancuso's best friends. "She revels in it."
On Thursday, she reveled in it some more. Mancuso, not Vonn, added to her medal total by winning a silver in the super combined, in which she was beaten out only by Riesch. Thus, she became the first American female skier to accumulate three Olympic medals, a stat she described as "pretty crazy and cool."
Vonn had a chance to knock Mancuso, her teammate, and Riesch, her best friend, back, but she elected to attack the slalom course that makes up half of this event. Midway down, she hooked a ski around a gate and fell. The gold would be left for Riesch. The American medal of the day, surprisingly, was left for Mancuso.
"I didn't expect that from myself," Mancuso said. "I just believed."
Who, then, is the star of this competition? The story lines were plentiful Thursday. There was Riesch, who hosts Vonn at her home in Germany each Christmas, aggressively skiing the slalom run a day after jitters overcame her in the downhill. There was Vonn, skiing the fastest downhill run in the morning -- the super combined adds the times from a downhill and a slalom run -- and announcing, despite her painfully bruised right shin, that she would threaten for another medal.
And there was Anja Paerson, too, the Swedish champion who somehow overcame a horrific-looking crash in the downhill to not only race -- "That was a fall that probably would have taken 98 percent of the field out," U.S. women's Coach Jim Tracy said -- but to win bronze, the sixth Olympic medal of her career.
"The way I do it just proves to myself that I'm so strong in my head," Paerson said.
Mancuso, now, could say the same. She might, though, add her heart. She came here without so much as a podium finish in any discipline on the World Cup circuit since 2008. Now, she has two podiums in two races, and appears to be a contender going forward.
"She is a massive threat," Alcott said. "Watch out, the rest of the Olympics, I can tell you."
The dynamics of the day set up thusly: Vonn won the downhill portion by .33 of a second over Riesch and .80 over Mancuso. Then, the top 30 were inverted, and the fastest downhiller, Vonn, skied last. Riesch leads the World Cup slalom standings. Vonn has struggled in the discipline ever since a December crash in which she hurt her wrist, failing to finish the three World Cup slalom races since.
"It's definitely, by no means, over," Vonn said between runs.
Mancuso went before Riesch and Vonn, and when she skied the best slalom run she could remember -- 45.12 seconds -- she held the lead by .11 over Paerson. With just two skiers to come, she was guaranteed a medal. She collapsed in the snow.
"That was pure joy," Mancuso said.
The only question: What color would that medal be? Riesch's slalom run was nearly half a second faster than Mancuso's, and she vaulted into the lead. Only Vonn could knock Mancuso back more.
Between runs, Vonn and her husband, former Olympic skier Thomas Vonn, discussed the correct approach.
"This is the Olympics," Thomas Vonn said, "and she came here to try to win gold medals."
So she went after it. Though she lost time to Riesch at the top of the course, she could have contended for silver or bronze. But as she tried a hard right turn, she planted her left ski, and her right tip caught a gate. She fell, and her hopes for medals in all five disciplines -- hopes fanned by both the media and the public -- were gone.
"I put it all out there," Vonn said. "It didn't work out for me."
That does not, however, mean the rest of Vonn's Olympics won't work out. She will return to the mountain for super-G -- her second-best event, next to downhill -- on Saturday. Her shin injury -- she described it as "killing me" Thursday -- could continue to be a factor.
The other factor, though, is clearly Mancuso. She said she did not resent the pre-Games attention paid to Vonn, a two-time World Cup overall champion. "I've been struggling," she said. Here, though, she is clearly focused and free.
"I think her struggling in the past few years is maybe motivating her more, and she's coming in here as an underdog," Vonn said. "No one's really expecting her to do anything, and I think that helps. When you don't have any pressure, it helps to ski aggressively. It definitely is a lot different when you have everyone looking at you and expecting you to do things. It's not as easy.
"But I'm psyched for her. She's doing an awesome job, and it's great to see the American flag up there on the podium."
On Thursday, Mancuso was the one waving that flag, sashaying just as she had done the day before. Who knows how many times, before these Games are over, she might do that again?
"Anything's possible," she said, smiling, "as you saw today."