KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – American skiing champion Julia Mancuso thrust herself into contention in the Olympic super combined Monday morning, dominating the competition on a softening Rosa Khutor downhill course and setting up a potentially enthralling slalom run in the afternoon.
Mancuso, whose three Olympic Alpine medals are more than any American woman, crushed the downhill portion of the race, covering the 1.69-mile course in 1 minute, 42.68 seconds — .47 seconds faster than Switzerland’s Lara Gut, a speed-racing specialist who placed second Monday morning.
Warmer conditions, which soften the snow, play to the strengths of Mancuso, who grew up skiing in northern California, and temperatures at the base of the sun-drenched Rosa Khutor course approached 50 degrees. Mancuso, who trained three times on the downhill course but took Sunday off to recoup, felt confident skiing 22nd, after most of the contenders had already taken their runs.
“I was just full of energy when I kicked out of the start,” Mancuso said. “The snow felt a little bit softer so it was easier to really drive into my ski. Having a day off, I felt really energized today. First race of the Olympics, I was excited, and I really just focused on being aerodynamic and going for it.”
Now for the difficult part. The super combined, in which Mancuso won silver four years ago in Vancouver, adds the times of one downhill run and one slalom run – with the slalom scheduled for 3 p.m. local time (6 a.m. EST). Slalom is Mancuso’s weakest discipline. Since the start of the 2011-12 World Cup season, she has failed to finish both runs of slalom in seven of her nine attempts and hasn’t placed better than 20th. She has not entered a World Cup slalom race this year.
Even as a strong downhill skier – she won silver in that discipline in Vancouver, too – she hasn’t returned to the podium since narrowly losing to Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany at the 2010 Games, though she did place fourth in one super combined last February. Earlier this week, she downplayed her chances in the slalom portion of her first Olympic event.
“Slalom for me is kind of like a game of luck,” Mancuso said. “Roll the dice and it’s on, or you roll the dice and it’s off. I haven’t done a lot of training because it’s not that easy on my body.”
And even as she built a significant lead in the downhill, she will have to fend off serious contenders – most notably Hoefl-Riesch, who sits in fifth, 1.04 seconds behind Mancuso. The 29-year-old German is fifth in the current World Cup slalom standings, but her accomplishments in the discipline are remarkable – the gold medal in Vancouver, a gold at the 2009 World Championships, and two season-long World Cup slalom titles.
Of the 14 skiers within two seconds of Mancuso after the downhill portion of the event, only three rank in the current top 15 of the World Cup slalom standings: Slovenia’s Tina Maze, last year’s World Cup overall champion, who sits third, .86 of a second behind Mancuso; Hoefl-Riesch; and Austria’s Nicole Hosp, who is eighth, 1.27 seconds back.
“I thought it would be tighter,” said Great Britain’s Chemmy Alcott, one of Mancuso’s best friends. “But Julia’s got an amazing feeling on the ski. She looked like she was skiing a normal course. You couldn’t see that it had warmed up. She wasn’t thrown with her body position a lot.”
Alcott attributed that to Mancuso’s legendary work with Pilates and various balancing techniques. Indeed, Mancuso said she has put in 90-minute dry-land sessions in the early mornings, even at the Olympics. But there is another factor for Mancuso at the Olympics. A winner of just seven World Cup races over her 13 seasons on the international tour, she excels at the most significant competitions; she has five medals at World Championships to go along with her three Olympic medals — which include gold in the giant slalom in 2006.
“You never write her off, you know?” Alcott said. “I would’ve put money on that she’d come down in first right now. I’m just really excited to see how she holds those nerves in slalom, because we know she can do it. Four years ago, she did it.”
Then, she skied an inspired slalom run and fell in the snow upon its completion, pure joy. Will that be the result Monday afternoon?
“I really feel like I have a chance at a medal,” Mancuso said. “Especially having a great downhill run, I need to stay grounded and focus on that slalom.”
A slalom that could help her add to her medal total, and her legacy.