If the weather turns nasty at the world championships in Are, Sweden, today and the downhill course is blanketed in fog and snow, there can only be one possible winner of the women’s gold medal. The more treacherous the powder, the poorer the visibility and the more conditions transport her back to childhood on Lake Tahoe, Utah, the better Julia Mancuso likes it.
Mancuso won her Olympic gold medal in Turin in just such a white-out, hurtling down the giant slalom course in Sestriere to bring the beleaguered US squad a brief glimpse of the glory they had expected and comprehensively failed to deliver. None of her extended family, sitting in the front row of the grandstand below, nor any of the millions watching on televi-sion, could see any more than Mancuso herself, but none of that mattered. While others went in search of excuses, Mancuso skied straight into the psychological vacuum and snatched the gold, becoming the first American to win the women’s giant slalom for more than two decades.
Even now, you sense Mancuso is waiting to wake up from the dream. She has signed a new two-year contract with Rossig-nol, done calendar shoots for a ski-boot manufacturer and hired an agent to project her image beyond the range of the ski slopes. She is succeeding quite spectacularly. Mancuso, of Italian heritage and with a story to tell, has rocketed to the heart of American consciousness, every inch the feisty, independent, talented ski chick. “I think underwear is my calling,” she memora-bly announced in an interview last month. “You can be feminine and fast.”
Mancuso’s best friend on tour is Chemmy Alcott, the blonde and vivacious British skier. But the impact of Mancuso’s sassy self-promotion is heightened most by the obvious contrast with Lindsey Kildow, her compatriot and rival, who reflects a different way of American life. Kildow hails from a farm in the Mid-west, is quiet, well organised, softly spoken and travels with her boyfriend, without fuss or recreational vehicle. “We get along great,” says Mancuso, not entirely with conviction. “We’ve been competing against each other since we were 12. Our personalities are a little bit different, but I guess opposites attract sometimes. It’s cool.”
Having recovered from hip surgery during the off-season, Mancuso’s season began quietly, a streak of five top three fin-ishes in World Cup events in January, including two wins, shooting the 22-year-old back into contention for gold medals in all the major disciplines at these world championships and putting her in line to become the first American woman for 24 years to take the overall World Cup title.
The bigger the event, the more dangerous is Mancuso. In 2002 she won three gold medals at the junior world championships and twice took bronze in the last senior world championships in 2005. Then came Olympic gold. On Friday, she added another line to the records, winning silver in the women’s combined. No other American racer has won a medal in three successive major championships. “I feed off everybody else’s excitement, having people around, my family, being with the men’s team,” she explains.
If Mancuso, whose nickname is Princess, acts at times like a teenager, she competes like a veteran. The nonconformity can be traced back to 1989 when the family’s home in Squaw Valley, California, was raided by the police and Julia’s father Ciro arrested. It emerged that he had been running a drug-smuggling operation since the early 1970s and he served five years in jail.
Andrea and Ciro Mancuso separated in 1992 and were divorced two years later, and Julia divides her time between her mother’s home in Park City, Utah, and her father’s house in Maui. But it is not an area of her life much up for discussion.
Mancuso, it seems, needs tension to thrive. Her Olympic gold was won against a backdrop of disputes with US officials, initially, believe it or not, over whether she could plug her motorhome into the same power supply used by Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves on the men’s team in the car park outside the US team’s Olympic hotel — she could not — and then over the presence of her then boyfriend, Olympic skier Steve Nyman, who took the hint dropped by the US women’s coaches and went home before Mancuso’s giant slalom event.
With the home favourite Anja Paerson back to her best after a mid-season break and a revitalised Renate Goetschl also vying for gold today, Mancuso will need to summon all her competitive edge to win another medal. But her mind has already turned forward to her next career. “I want to be on Broadway,” she laughs. At times, it seems she’s already there.
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