North Shore’s Mancuso strikes gold: Tahoe racer puts it down when it counts to win Olympic giant slalom
SESTRIERE COLLE, Italy – Julia Mancuso has a knack for breaking through in big moments.
Much to the joy of all of the course workers she’d befriended, not to mention the large contingent of family and friends in attendance – plus all of those who thought the U.S. women’s ski team had lost its chance at medals – the 21-year-old from Tahoe City took gold in the women’s final ski event on Friday.
Mancuso, who was also the only U.S. woman to medal with a pair of bronzes last year at the world championships in Bormio, Italy, led the first run of Friday’s giant slalom, then held strong for the win with a two-run combined time of 2 minutes, 9.19 seconds.
When she crossed the finish line, she threw her arms in the air and collapsed backwards onto the snow laughing.
“I was like, ‘I just won the Olympics.’ It sounds so weird to say. I won the Olympics,” Mancuso said. “All I have to say now is that I’m really excited.”
Road to gold begins with Pop-Tarts
The formula toward the gold medal was not exactly the breakfast of champions.
On Thursday night, rather than having a healthy dinner, Mancuso stayed up late, transfixed with figure skating on TV, and eating Pop-Tarts.
“I didn’t have the best diet for dinner,” Mancuso said. “I got really fired up for figure skating and went to bed a little too late. I woke up this morning, sort of cleared the past and wanted to go out and have my best day.”
On her way to a best day, Mancuso, who’s the first American woman to take gold in an Olympic GS since Debbie Armstrong in Sarajevo in 1984, forgot to bring her credential to the race course.
“The lesson to be learned is that it doesn’t matter,” Mancuso said later. “The only thing that matters is believing in yourself, kicking out of the start gate, and leaving everything else behind.”
Mancuso, whose great day came without her lucky, custom-made “Super Jules” underwear, was surprised after putting down the lead result in the first run.
Perhaps not wanting to jinx herself between runs, Mancuso informed everyone that “I’ve never won a (giant) slalom from the top position.”
Sweden’s Anja Paerson, and current World Cup GS leader, was behind Mancuso by only .18 second after the first run, saying that after taking gold in slalom on Wednesday, “I have nothing to prove now.”
Accordingly, she fell off the radar screen, finishing sixth overall, significantly behind her teammate, Anna Ottosson, who took bronze with a time of 2:10.33. Silver went to Tanja Poutianen (2:09.86), the first alpine skiing medal for Finland in Olympic history.
Training and blood traits
In the last two seasons, Mancuso has followed the same training regiment as Hermann Maier. She has also gone to Hawaii the past few summers to train by way of kite surfing before coming back to adjust to the cold and wet Tahoe winters.
As the snow became heavier for the second run Friday, perhaps fraying the nerves of some racers, Mancuso felt like it was like a piece of home.
“Because it was bad weather, it seemed less like the Olympics,” she said. “You always dream of the Olympics as the most perfect race, tons of people there, all this pressure. But it was just another day on a stormy race course. The visibility and snow was a lot like home. I just dug into my roots and trusted myself.”
Some of Mancuso’s former coaches from Squaw Valley were helping out on the course Friday, working with locals who had already fallen in love with Mancuso because of her Italian name. Italian is in Mancuso’s blood, as her great, great grandmother was abandoned at a church in Bologne, Italy, as a baby.
“I love Italy,” said Mancuso, who broke into a smile before kicking out of the start gate for the second run upon hearing her name chanted by the course workers. “I have a ton of Italian fans. They’re all like, ‘Joooo – ee – a!'”
The finish line
As the course set (by Janica Kostelic’s father) in the second run eliminated many racers, many of whom missed gates or ended up wearing them trying to make tight, late turns, Mancuso knew the line she needed and stuck to it.
“There were a couple of surprise gates coming out of nowhere in there,” she said. “My tactics from the start were to take an early line and continue to stay early throughout the course.”
Ironically, Mancuso’s winning mind-set is not about winning.
“It comes from just believing in sport, not medals or finishing,” she said. “For me, it’s not about coming through the finish line and wishing myself to the finish line. It’s about skiing. I know where my feet are and how to react when (conditions) get tough.”
Mancuso, like Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller, has been living in an RV at the Games rather than in the Olympic Village with the rest of her team. She didn’t have power until a couple of days ago, when she adopted the power from Rahlves’ rig after he left.
When asked how her life might change now that she’s an Olympic gold medalist, an RV upgrade was one of the first things on the list.
“Well, I’m going to have a really cool gold medal,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a bigger RV and have power for the whole Olympics.”
Closer to home, Mancuso’s aunt and uncle, Roy and Becky Darrow of Zephyr Cove, were awakened to the news by telephone. Mancuso’s father, Ciro, called the couple 10 minutes after the event ended to tell them the good news.
“It’s thrilling. We’re really proud of her,” Roy Darrow said. “It was a dream come true. Very few people get that experience and it was very special. We’re all very proud of her.”
– City Editor Jeff Munson contributed to this story.
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