Mancuso maintains Olympic mojo
SOCHI, Russia -- Most Olympic athletes say they try to psych themselves into treating this grandest of competitions just like any other.
Julia Mancuso opens up the floodgates and lets it all in -- the scale, the glitz, the high stakes and high emotion. She ratchets up the expectations and the ante for herself. She packs a tiara for the medals ceremony.
It obviously works for her.
Mancuso had struggled through the early part of the World Cup season, and said she had to basically scrap it and hit reset over the holidays. On Monday, as usual, she skied her best when it mattered most to the wider world outside the snow fences.
She crushed the downhill portion of the super-combined event Monday morning and did just enough in the afternoon slalom run to elbow her way onto the podium, third behind Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany and Austria's Nicole Hosp.
Her bronze medal is the latest addition to an Olympic Alpine haul topping that of any other U.S. woman, and it put her in the company of Bonnie Blair and Apolo Ohno as the only U.S. winter athletes to win individual medals in three straight Games.
Anyone who didn't see Mancuso coming hasn't been paying attention. She's used to that.
"'Overlooked' is just maybe looking in the wrong places," she said of the adjective so often applied to her.
"That kind of stuff has never mattered to me. My teammates have been incredible. Lindsey Vonn is a champion and of course has had way more success than I have on the World Cup [59 wins to seven for Mancuso], so it's definitely warranted to give her a lot of credit.
"For me, it's always been about my journey and skiing. I ski fast for me, first and foremost, and I ski fast for my family, and it's always the love that gets me to the podium.
"That's why I brought my tiara. And I do have it," she said, pulling her favorite accessory from a bag to show reporters. "I'll be wearing it later.''
Mancuso, 29, competing in her fourth Olympics, is more proficient at speed events at this point in her career and barely trains slalom anymore. But she had two things going for her when she pushed off toward the gates -- warm weather, which yielded the softer snow she favors, and the final starting position, meaning she knew the time she had to beat.
Then there is whatever intangible Olympic juju that enables Mancuso to keep her balance in an environment in which other great skiers sometimes skid. She grew up in Squaw Valley, Calif., amid reminders of the 1960 Olympics. Her grandparents named her mother after U.S. Alpine darling Andrea Mead Lawrence, a double Olympic champion in 1952, and started a family tradition of outdoor sports togetherness.
The first run Mancuso ever won at the elite level was at the Torino Games in 2006 -- one of the two that propelled her to a surprise gold medal in giant slalom.
Her warm, boisterous clan enveloped her between those runs. Her late grandfather, Denny Tuffanelli, was elated yet calm. "You already won a run in the Olympics," he told her. "That's amazing; you can be really proud of that."
Tuffanelli died last week six months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, but his loving words came back to Mancuso after her first run. After she finished, her sister Sara dove over a fence in a security breach no one seemed to mind.
"If anyone's going to break the rules, it's probably going to be someone from my family," Mancuso said.
Mancuso said she is more relaxed here than she was in Vancouver, where she won silver medals in the downhill and the combined but also was subjected to constant prodding about her relationship with Vonn and didn't hold back on her irritation with the comparison.
Vonn's absence at these Games after knee surgery eliminated that line of questioning, but it created a different kind of pressure -- one to fill a void. Mancuso skied into that vacuum Monday and made Sochi look like just another Olympics, that little event where she's used to prospering.