Julia Mancuso deep into free diving

Before becoming the most decorated female skier in United States history, Julia Mancuso talked to W about one of her passions, free diving.

When she's not racing down a mountain at 85 mph, three-time Olympic skiing medalist Julia Mancuso loves to strip down from her snowsuit to her swimsuit. In the offseason, you'll find the Squaw Valley, Calif., native hitting the beaches in Maui, where she lives part-time.

But don't expect to find the 29-year-old uber-athlete working on her tan. Mancuso, who has already showed her dominance on land -- she has more Olympic medals than any other female American Alpine skier -- is taking on the sea, too.

Mancuso spent last summer diving headfirst into the sport of free diving.

Living on a stunning tropical island would inspire most anyone to explore it in new ways. But it wasn't the beautiful beaches in her own backyard that first enticed Mancuso to take the plunge. Instead, she got excited about free diving while filming with GoPro in New Zealand in 2012. A film crew needed someone to free dive with some whales for a cool shot. The outdoors lover intrepidly raised her hand. But because Mancuso had no experience, they ended up going with a professional free diver instead.

She took the rejection as an opportunity to accept a challenge and to "show them."

The following summer -- after another successful winter season gearing up for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi -- the snow princess (who has worn a plastic tiara on the Olympic podium) began chasing her newest hot-weather dream.

"I can hold my breath for pretty long and I'm a strong swimmer," she said. "But I understand that whenever you jump into something new, there's always so much more to it, such as finding the right equipment and mastering good technique."

Mancuso signed up with a friend for a three-day introduction to competitive free diving that covered everything from the physics of the sport to the physiology of it.

Starting in a pool, Mancuso practiced deep yogic breaths, inhaling for 10 counts and exhaling for 10 counts for a couple of minutes. This helped slow her heart rate down. Taking one more really deep breath and shrugging her shoulders to get in a little more oxygen, she would then sink under and try to relax beneath the water. She repeated the drill over and over, resting for three minutes between each round. In no time, she began to notice the mammalian effect that the instructors had told her about.

"Once you're in the water, your body starts to adapt, so you get better at holding your breath," she said. "I couldn't believe that I was able to hold my breath for three and a half minutes!"

Soon, she was ready for the open ocean.

"Diving was so different. It's so quiet under the water, but a lot is physically going on," Mancuso said. "Three days before we did the course, I would have thought 'You're crazy, come up for air!'

"But afterward, it felt so incredible. I don't think I'm a natural, but I am very ambitious and determined."

It doesn't hurt that Mancuso -- who won gold in the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games and two silvers, in the downhill and combined, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- has amazing lung and aerobic capacity, too.

What started out as a goal to prove a point quickly turned into her new favorite passion.

It's not just the physical challenge that keeps luring this fish out of water back into the sea.

"I love to collect shells in caves and holes on the North Shore where I live," she said. "A lot of these shells will never make it onto the beach. And there's this golden treasure chest of shells right out beyond the breaking waves."

The deepest she's ever gone for a shell so far is 65 feet, which took a total of 40 seconds, counting both descent and ascent.

"I bring home a bag of about 40 shells every time I dive," she said. "I have about 500 in my house right now."

Her current favorite is a shiny, perfectly intact cone shell with a unique and beautiful pattern. But the other shells have nothing to be jealous about.

"I'm a shell nerd," said Mancuso, who admitted she doesn't even keep her trophies from many of her skiing events. "All I want to do is get back from the gym and clean my shells."