-- Earlier this week, as she described her philosophy on both skiing and life, Julia Mancuso smiled briefly, seemingly at ease with her approach to the upcoming Aspen Winternational World Cup races here, not to mention the entire season. At just 21, she has already figured out, she said, how she must approach this whole business of enjoying an elite skiing career while most Americans will focus simply on the results of February's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
"I have all these expectations, and you have people with goals for medals," Mancuso said. "But I have to turn that around because for me, the fun comes before the medals. And if the medals come before the fun, the medals don't come. It sort of sounds silly, but it always seems in the past that the good results come after the easygoing attitude's there, not before."
All that makes sense for a young woman from the laidback environs of Lake Tahoe, Nev., and the nearby mountains at Squaw Valley, where she developed her skills. But as the sun sank behind Aspen Mountain on Saturday afternoon and cast a fading gray light over the racecourse here, it was apparent that for Mancuso, results still very much matter. In the giant slalom, likely her best event, Mancuso could never get comfortable in her boots or on the mountain, and she finished 12th, more than two seconds off the pace of winner Maria Jose Rienda Contreras of Spain. The disappointment was plain on her face.
"I was a little bit all over the place," Mancuso said.
If Mancuso is to contend for a medal in the event in Turin, she will likely have to contend with Rienda, the 30-year-old who has burst into international prominence over the last few seasons. Her victory Saturday was her third in the last four World Cup giant slalom races, dating from last season, and she has established herself as a clear challenger to the powerful Austrians in the giant slalom, the discipline in which she specializes.
"I hope," she said of her Olympic aspirations in her thick Spanish accent. "I hope."
Rienda was the fastest in the first run, which took place in the late morning, when much of Aspen Mountain was still speckled with sun. In giant slalom, the winner is determined by the combined time of two runs, so Rienda, by virtue of her fast time in the morning, had to wait out 29 skiers as the temperature dropped and the course grew more treacherous over the course of the afternoon.
Sweden's Anja Paerson, the two-time defending overall World Cup champion who was fifth-best in the morning run, blazed to a combined time of 1 minute 57.51 seconds with a searing afternoon run that was bettered by just one other competitor. But going out last, Rienda deftly handled the bottom third of the course along Ruthie's Run, a section that had slowed other skiers, and finished in 1:57.17. Paerson was second, and 19-year-old Kathrin Zettel showed that the Austrians have hope well into the future by finishing third.
Mancuso was never in that mix. She wore a new pair of boots on Saturday, and said they were too stiff for the course that demanded the skiers carry speed through a flat portion midway through the run.
"It's hard to ski naturally," she said. "I couldn't really get comfortable."
She has one more race here, the slalom on Sunday, before heading over to Europe for the two months that lead up to the Olympics. This is more than a business trip, though. She and her sister and a childhood friend will travel the European circuit in a 27-foot recreational vehicle. There is no point, Mancuso has learned, to going to all these breath-taking places -- Aspen or Val d'Isere, France or St. Moritz, Switzerland -- if she doesn't allow her breath to be taken away. That realization, she said, clicked for her when she was struggling not just to get in the top 10, but when she had difficulty advancing from the morning run to the afternoon.
"It was sort of a feeling of unfulfillment," she said. "I was not enjoying it. From then, I had to just turn it around and just love skiing. [It wasn't about] going to bed early so you can have a good race the next day, because you can go to bed early and you might not have a good race the next day anyway. So it's sort of just seeing the world and enjoying my time on the road and actually skiing when I'm in beautiful places. It's not just taking those two training runs on the course, but exploring the mountain or stopping at a hut for lunch."
The results, though, will determine whether the whole don't-pay-attention-to-results approach works, and Saturday wasn't the best start. Mancuso feels as if she is still in training mode, and that the best portion of her season is ahead. "I'm really excited to ski more," she said.
And don't mistake the preaching about "skiing for love," as Mancuso says she does, with a lack of focus, for a truly carefree attitude.
"Julia's competitive," said U.S. head coach Patrick Riml. "There's no way she'd be where she is if she wasn't."
The way she trudged off the mountain Saturday afternoon showed it.
"I'm always," she said, "going for the gold medal."