Julia Mancuso wins U.S. giant slalom

WINTER PARK, Colo. -- Julia Mancuso needed a little motivation, a little nudge to get her mind focused on defending her title.

A fast opening run from Sarah Schleper provided just the push.

Mancuso turned in a swift second run on soft snow to overtake Schleper at the U.S. championships Friday and capture a third straight giant slalom crown.

Trailing Schleper by 1.52 seconds after the first go-around, Mancuso held nothing back, settling into a rhythm and rolling along the bumpy course. The skier from Squaw Valley, Calif., finished in a combined time of 2 minutes, 21.61 seconds.

"Sarah really laid it down. Maybe she shouldn't have gone so fast, then I wouldn't get so mad and want to ski fast," Mancuso said, grinning. "I like this kind of course. For me, it was easier to see where I could go fast and just take risks. It was a little rugged, but I'm psyched with the outcome."

Mancuso extended her record by picking up her 12th national title. She moved ahead of Andrea Mead Lawrence last spring for most by an American, a mark that had stood for 55 years.

With her name linked to Mead Lawrence, Mancuso is learning more and more about the skier who won gold medals in the slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.

Turns out, Mancuso's grandfather was a big fan and actually named Mancuso's mom after Mead Lawrence. Mancuso has a chance to add even more titles this weekend as she competes in the super-G and slalom.

Schleper, of Vail, Colo., took a more conservative approach the second time through the course, berating herself after the race for changing her aggressive style. She finished 0.61 seconds behind Mancuso.

"Pretty frustrating," said Schleper, who was attempting to win her first national GS title since 1998 in Jackson, Wyo. "I knew Julia could beat me by a second and a half on a soft, straight course.

"I didn't want it bad enough, obviously," she said.

Stacey Cook finished third, which came as a surprise even to her. She's more of a downhill specialist and hasn't trained in the giant slalom all that much this season.

Any chance of a return to the GS?

"I don't think so," Cook said, laughing. "That was too much work."

Lindsey Vonn did not compete, choosing to rest a balky right knee after an exhausting World Cup season. Her bid for a fourth straight overall World Cup title was derailed by Germany's Maria Riesch, who won by just three points after the season's final race was called off because of poor course conditions.

Other top U.S. women missed the nationals as well -- Chelsea Marshall (back), Alice McKennis (knee), Hailey Duke (shoulder) and Megan McJames (heel).

Mancuso has always enjoyed attending this event, even if it comes after a long season and even if there's really nothing left for the three-time Olympic medalist to prove.

She recently wrapped up a solid World Cup season in fitting fashion, winning the final downhill of the year.

Mancuso wound up third in both the downhill and super-G standings.

"This year was a step in the right direction," the 27-year-old Mancuso said.

Now it's back to the gym, only, not so much to work out as remodel the place. She's in the process of opening a high-performance center for athletes in Truckee, Calif.

"It's been a lot of work, but it's fun to finally get in there and see the changes, and put my own personal touch," Mancuso said.

Schleper has big plans this offseason as well.

Namely, starting a garden at her summer home in Minnesota. She wants to grow lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and, if she can get them to sprout, artichokes.

"We're committed to a healthy diet this summer," the 32-year-old said.

Before that happens, there's still skiing left to do for Schleper. She's going to compete in a couple more spring races -- "to make some money," she said, laughing -- and then help out at a few ski camps for kids.

After all, her son, 3-year-old Lasse, is already pretty proficient on skis, logging 35 days following mom around the World Cup scene. It could've been more, but Schleper's husband, Federico Gaxiola, blew out his knee in December and hasn't been able to ski with him.

"It's fun to have them around," Schleper said.

Especially after days like this, when she falls short in a race she was leading.

"I should've just stuck to the game plan," Schleper said, shaking her head.

This happened two years ago in Alaska, too, opening the door for Mancuso.

"I punched it second run [back then], hooked a tip and got a concussion," Schleper said. "At least I don't have a concussion today."