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Peaking Mancuso seeks to pull an upset in the giant slalom

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D06

WHISTLER, B.C. -- Four years ago, Julia Mancuso stood at the top of an Olympic race course with a tiara on her head, and skied her way to a gold medal. In the seasons since, her teammate Lindsey Vonn won two World Cup overall championships, and thus came here the pre-Games darling.

Wednesday, Mancuso could redirect the spotlight again. Though Mancuso and Vonn have taken public pains to downplay any rivalry -- Mancuso wrote on her Twitter account Sunday, "Why can't we celebrate all the good things! Lindsey is an amazing skier and guess what, so am I!" -- Wednesday's giant slalom would appear to be, on paper, a chance for Mancuso to win a third medal of these Olympics, and perhaps a struggle for Vonn.

"I'm confident in how I'm skiing," Mancuso said. "I'm really excited for the GS."

At various points over the last four years, Mancuso has felt like her gold medal from the giant slalom -- won in Sestriere, Italy, during the Turin Olympics -- has been overshadowed, not only by Vonn but also by her own struggles with injuries. "It just seems like my timing was off," she said during an interview in December.

Now, her timing appears to be perfect. She won unexpected silver medals in the downhill and the super combined earlier at these Games, and she is skiing well enough in conditions that don't suit other skiers -- "I love the snow here," she said -- that she could pull another upset Wednesday. Forget that her best finish in six giant slalom races on the World Cup circuit this season is 13th.

"Julia is a big-game skier," U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy said.

Giant slalom is Vonn's weakest discipline, the only one in which she has never had a top-three World Cup finish. She also has trained for giant slalom only once in the past month -- Monday, an off day for Alpine competition -- as she has dealt with injuries, first to her wrist and then, most notably at these Olympics, to her right shin. Her final race of the Olympics, one which Mancuso will not ski, is Friday's slalom, another discipline in which she has struggled this season.

"I have no reason to ski conservative, and I'm not going to be," Vonn said. "I'm going to ski with everything I've got. I'm going to come with all my guns blazing, and hopefully I can pull something off. But I'm definitely not expecting anything."

Vonn finally dismissed the notion that her shin is hindering her performance -- "I'm able to ski the way I want to ski," she said -- and she wrote on her Facebook page that was "happy with my skiing" after training for giant slalom.

"She is certainly fast enough, as a dark-horse threat, in both events," said Vonn's husband, former Olympic skier Thomas Vonn. She has five career podium finishes, including two wins, in slalom, and 10 top-10 finishes in giant slalom.

"It's possible," Lindsey Vonn said. "Anything's possible."

Just ask Mancuso.

Track designer responds

The designer of the crash-plagued Whistler Sliding Center track said there was never any pressure from Olympic organizers to make the circuit as fast as possible.

"No, not at all, in no shape or form," veteran track designer Ugo Gurgel said in a telephone interview Tuesday with the Associated Press.

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed when his sled flew off the track at speeds nearing 90 mph during a training run just hours before the Olympic flame was lit. After an investigation by local authorities, officials of the Vancouver Organizing Committee and International Luge Federation blamed the fatal crash on human error.

Asked whether the course was too fast, Gurgel replied: "It is fast. As I have said before, if fast means dangerous, then yes."

U.S. referee preferred

Canadian Coach Melody Davidson says American Leah Wrazidlo is a better choice to officiate the final game of the women's ice hockey tournament than the two European referees also under consideration by the International Ice Hockey Federation for assignment to Thursday's final between the U.S. and Canada.

Davidson respects Wrazidlo and sees no evidence of a national bias. Davidson says she prefers the consistency of North American referees over the sometimes-unpredictable standards of European referees in international tournaments. Women's hockey doesn't allow bodychecking, but the rule is not always enforced.

News services contributed to this report.

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