KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There must be something different about the Olympics, be it a vibe or a pressure or a spirit, because the statistics written next to Julia Mancuso’s name would dictate that she had no business doing what she did Monday afternoon, dancing in the snow. It had been almost a year since Mancuso skied a full slalom run, a requirement to complete Monday’s Olympic super-combined. She had not finished on the podium in this discipline, which meshes one downhill run with one of slalom, since – well, look here – the Vancouver Olympics, four years ago.
Yet here she was, high above the Rosa Khutor course, a steep slope littered with gates below her. After a blistering downhill run gave her the lead entering the slalom, she needed somehow to navigate the snake’s pit below.
“I was just thinking, ‘Stay calm, and ski with my heart,’” Mancuso said, “and I skied my heart out.”
The cynic might say that other elements – athleticism, training, stamina – dictate performance and results. Mancuso is increasingly solid proof there is more. She could not hold her lead over Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, a superb slalom racer who took gold, but she held onto a historic bronze medal – the fourth of her Olympic career, twice as many as any other American women’s Alpine skier.
“She sucks up the spirit of the Games and uses it as motivation, and gets really, really excited about it,” said Alex Hoedlmoser, the head coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team. “She loves to compete here.”
That is the only explanation for why Mancuso can stumble into Olympics, then excel when she arrives. She is now the first American skier to win medals in three straight Olympics, joining speedskaters Apolo Ohno and Bonnie Blair as the only American Winter Olympians to have such a streak. She won silvers in both the downhill and the combined in Vancouver even as she was coming off a frustrating, injury-plagued run-up to the Games. This season, on the international World Cup circuit, she had scarcely sniffed a podium, with no finish better than seventh.
But when she took to a soft downhill course on an unusually warm late morning – temperatures approached 50 degrees – Mancuso immediately reminded people that these are the Olympics, the lights are on, and she’s here to perform.
“That was pretty amazing,” Hoedlmoser said.
Her lead after that run was 0.47 seconds over Switzerland’s Lara Gut. More importantly, it was 1.27 seconds over Austria’s Nicole Hosp, 1.04 over Hoefl-Riesch and 0.86 seconds over Slovenia’s Tina Maze – outstanding slalom skiers all.
What, though, could be expected of Mancuso in the slalom? Since the start of the 2011-12 season, she had failed to finish seven of nine World Cup slalom races she entered, never placing better than 20th. Earlier in the week, she had called her slalom racing “a game of luck.”
“Roll the dice, and it’s on,” Mancuso said, “or you roll the dice, and it’s off.”
What would Monday bring?
“You never write her off, you know?” Britain’s Chemmy Alcott, one of Mancuso’s best friends, said between runs. “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.”
In that race, Mancuso managed an inspired slalom – she called it her best in years – and then watched as Hoefl-Riesch came down to beat her. Then, teammate Lindsey Vonn – the American darling of those Games, out with knee injuries in Sochi – caught a gate with her ski tip and fell. Mancuso had silver.
No way something similar could transpire again, right?
“This woman is a speed skier,” said Bill Marolt, the CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “She doesn’t run slalom. But what she shows is: There’s a difference between the will to prepare to win, and the will to win – and she has both.”
Monday’s task was more daunting, given the difficulty of the slalom course here. Even Hoefl-Riesch, with the combined and slalom golds from four years ago and two season-long World Cup slalom titles to her name, was apprehensive.
“I tried to keep cool and easy,” Hoefl-Riesch said. “But yeah, you can say that, but it’s not always possible.”
When Hoefl-Riesch skied, Hosp held an advantage of 0.23 seconds. But the German’s confident run of 50.90 seconds thrust her into the lead with an aggregate time of 2 minutes 34.62 seconds. Then she had to wait. Maze, last year’s World Cup overall champion, couldn’t beat her. And then, all that was left was Mancuso.
“I definitely had moments in my mind where I was thinking, ‘This is not going to be good enough,’” Mancuso said, “‘But keep fighting.’”
So she fought. Half her lead was gone after the first split, the rest after the second. The fight was all that remained. When she crossed the line, she looked at the board: 0.53 seconds behind Hoefl-Riesch, but a tenth of a second better than Maze, good for third. She jumped on her skis and punched the air, just as Hoefl-Riesch fell to the ground, so much joy in one place.
“I’ve always just had that real belief that I can do it,” Mancuso said. “For me, putting out these dreams and beliefs that I can come in here and have a medal, and everyone being a little skeptical and just knowing in my heart that I can do it, was kind of like crossing the finish line being like, ‘See, it works! Believing in yourself really works!’”
For Julia Mancuso, at the Olympics, it works almost every time.