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With a heavy heart, and after a bizarre opening run, American Julia Mancuso rallies to finish eighth in women's giant slalom

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; D05

WHISTLER, B.C. -- The big deal for Julia Mancuso on Wednesday had been the extraordinary circumstances involved in her ski racing: the crash by teammate and rival Lindsey Vonn, the halting of Mancuso in mid-run because of it, the speculation about the dynamics of their relationship that followed. She was, without question, angered and confused by all the events, and they threatened to overshadow her stellar, two-medal Olympics.

But on Wednesday night -- after the second run of the Olympic giant slalom was postponed until Thursday -- Mancuso found out all the drama didn't much matter. Mancuso grew up in the tight-knit ski community of Squaw Valley, Calif. Wednesday, a member of that community, accomplished freestyle skier C.R. Johnson, died in a skiing accident on his home mountain. Mancuso's twisting-and-turning Olympics suddenly had to negotiate the most unexpected hairpin of all.

"Coming here today, for me, and everything yesterday," Mancuso said, her voice cracking, "was just like, go out there and love skiing."

The tears started then, and they had nothing to do with her eighth-place finish in the giant slalom, the event in which she won gold four years ago at the Turin Games. Nor did they have anything to do with her perceived spat with Vonn. Mancuso's Olympics are now over, and she will leave here knowing she became the first -- and for now, only -- American female skier to win three Olympic medals in a career. She will also leave here with a reminder that all the competition and histrionics can overshadow why she got into the sport in the first place.

"I remember," Mancuso said, "how fun skiing is."

The particulars: Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany surprisingly won the gold in the giant slalom, with Slovenia's Tina Maze and Austria's Elisabeth Goergl winning their second silver and bronze, respectively, of these Games. They were all able to deal with the event's untenable logistics: the first run in steady snow Wednesday morning, four delays Wednesday afternoon before the second run was postponed, then another trek up the mountain Thursday to negotiate a wet, heavy track and complete the event.

"We're unused to this condition," Swedish great Anja Paerson said, and that all but perfectly describes Mancuso's circumstances. To review: When Vonn crashed during a formidable run Wednesday, Mancuso was the next skier. Before race officials could determine the extent of Vonn's spill, Mancuso was on the course. The result: She was stopped, and had to ride a snowmobile back to the top to try again -- an odd chain of events she likened to running a 400-meter sprint, and then being asked to do it again only minutes later. After the first run, she was 18th, all but out of contention.

"It's just really a crazy situation that I can't even wrap my head around," Mancuso said Thursday.

Still, she turned in a performance of which she can be proud. Starting 13th Thursday, she scarcely made a mistake on a course that was deteriorating as each racer passed. Her run of 1 minute 11.24 seconds put her in the lead, and held up as the third fastest of the day. But there were simply too many talented racers left, each of whom had a significant time advantage on Mancuso from Wednesday's first run. Switzerland's Fabienne Suter was the first to post a combined time faster than Mancsuo's, and when Rebensburg -- who has a grand total of one World Cup podium finish in any discipline -- skied through to take the lead, Mancuso was bumped from the podium.

"I think I had not that much pressure . . . but I know that I can ski fast and win a race, actually," Rebensburg said. "So I had a little pressure, because I made it myself."

If there was any pressure on Mancuso, it was completely due to the effort it took to focus despite what was being said and written about her relationship with Vonn, despite having to deal with Johnson's death. She took pains afterward to show her respect for Vonn, saying, among other things, "Of course she deserves attention. She really is the greatest female American skier we've had."

She pointed out, as well, that she ran into Vonn on Wednesday, after the competition, and Vonn apologized for the crazy coincidence that led to Mancuso's run being halted. "It's just funny the way the universe works," Mancuso said, and she dismissed the absurd notion that Vonn's crash was somehow orchestrated to affect her as "ridiculous."

Yet through all that, she also understood the storyline.

"We're both very different, and we have both gotten here to these Games and gotten our medals in completely opposite ways," Mancuso said. "I'm sure that fuels the fire even more, but of course it's always good to see your fellow American on the podium."

Thursday, for the first time in a women's Alpine race during the Olympics, there was no American woman on the podium. Mancuso will not compete in the final women's event, Friday's slalom. So when she left the mountain, she had time to think about everything that had transpired not only over the last two weeks, but through several injuries over the last four years, that led to her unlikely silver medal in the downhill, then another silver in the super combined.

"After winning my gold medal in Torino, at the end of 2006," Mancuso said, "it was like, 'You know what? This is what I've lived for, or this is what my career's all about, is going to the Olympics and performing under the Olympic [spotlight].' . . . To come back and coming here, and not being on the podium for two years and being able to stand on the podium twice really was a dream come true."

Her thoughts, though, also turned to Johnson, a 26-year-old who grew up at Squaw Valley, appeared in the X-Games, and had been featured in films on extreme skiing. Mancuso did her best to describe her friend, twice breaking into tears and taking more than half a minute to compose herself. And then, she tied it into all that happened here: her medals, her struggles, and what she gets from her sport.

"It's just guys going out and living their dream and pushing their limits," Mancuso said. "And skiing is not a safe sport all the time, especially when you want to push it. But it's fun. It's a lot of fun, and I love it."

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