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Skiing is believing

Difficult childhood helped make Mancuso tougher

Posted: Monday February 13, 2006 7:35PM; Updated: Tuesday February 14, 2006 12:49AM
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Julia Mancuso
Julia Mancuso's best Olympic chances are in the super G, giant slalom and combined.
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TURIN, Italy -- The skier's part of this story is set on an autumn morning in 1989, when she is in kindergarten. Julia Mancuso will someday go on to make two Olympic teams -- and probably more. On Wednesday she will race in the Olympic downhill in the mountain village of San Sicario outside Turin. She is fit and tough and she has a very real chance to win a medal. But on this day, 17 years ago, she is just a little girl in bed when her mom, Andrea, awakens her and says, "You don't have to go to school today. We're going to go out to breakfast and then come back later, OK?''

Julia pulls herself out of bed and sees her beautiful Lake Tahoe home surrounded by police cars. "I didn't know then what was going on,'' Julia recalls. "I just said, 'OK, Mom.''' That was the day the police took her father away and put him in jail, leading to an initial 17-month incarceration after a guilty plea for running a $140 million marijuana smuggling operation dating back to the early 1970s.

The father's part of this story is set in the village square of the Alpine resort of Sestriere, Italy, the nerve center of the ski events at the Olympic Games. Ciro Mancuso, 57 with a full head of graying hair and a healthy tan, is sipping a cappuccino at a small counter inside a tiny bistro. "You do things when you are younger,'' says Mancuso. "And they come back to haunt you when you are older.''

He speaks softly and with measured emotion. Creative people write movie scripts about lives like his, but he expresses no interest in glamorizing a past that stretches from the mountains over Lake Tahoe to Thailand, from courtrooms to jail cells, from family life to loneliness. He has come to Italy to watch his daughter ski in the Olympic Games. "This is about Julia, right?'' he asks.

Yes, it is about Julia. That means it is also about the athlete whose substance is formed by the sum of her experiences, and rare is the Olympic skier whose 21 years have encompassed more than Mancuso's. She has seen her father go to jail twice, once for those 17 months and once for four years while she was a teenager. Both times the cases made headlines. Julia has lived for long stretches of her adolescence with a mother whom she lovingly calls "a great mom who did a great job with us.'' (Ciro and Andrea Mancuso had three daughters -- Julia is in the middle between April, 25, and Sarah, 16 -- and divorced in 1992; Andrea will also be in Italy to watch her daughter ski.) As a young adult, Julia has welcomed her father back.

Ciro Mancuso says, "Everything that happened around Julia made her tougher; you see it in the way she competes.''

Her mother sees it differently: "She took everything out on the slopes,'' she says. "And look at the outcome.''

Five days before the Olympic downhill, Julia sat in the basement lounge of a hotel next to the Olympic Village. Her family story unfolded in chapters. At first she was too young to understand, and then too teen to care. Finally, she was old enough to learn and to listen to her father's story and find its place in her life. "As bad as it sounds, it wasn't all that terrible, nothing was traumatic,'' she says. "My mom was great, and I was never mad at my father for going away.''

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