As recently as this past Sunday, Julia Mancuso still held out hope that she would qualify for her fifth Olympic Winter Games.
“I’m not racing,” she tweeted from a downhill race in Austria’s Bad Kleinkirchheim on Sunday. “Saving my energy and hoping to have my best races in Cortina!!! One more week to qualify for the Olympics!”
But the pain from a degenerative right hip has proved too much. Mancuso – or “Super Jules” as she has often been called – announced her retirement from alpine ski racing on Friday.
“It’s really hard,” Mancuso said last fall, when asked if this would be her last season competing. “I don’t want to ever give up, and I’ve worked so hard to come back from this injury. It’s not easy.”
While she will not compete in PyeongChang next month, Mancuso will serve as a reporter and features contributor for NBC.
It marks the end of the 33-year-old’s storied ski-racing career — a career that spanned two centuries, two millennia in fact. In the 18 years since her first world cup race in 1999, Mancuso won more Olympic medals than any American woman in alpine skiing, with four, and is tied with Lindsey Vonn for most global championship medals won by an American woman with nine. She has also stood on the world cup podium 36 times and started in 398 world cup races.
Mancuso retired, and had her last race, at the site of her first world cup podium: a super-G second-place finish in Cortina, Italy.
A talented multi-discipline skier, Mancuso won medals in giant slalom as well as the speed events of downhill and super-G. As evidence of her versatility, she earned two of her four Olympic medals in super combined, an event that combines one run of downhill with one run of slalom. And she has world cup victories in downhill, super-G, combined and the city event.
“It has been an epic battle with my hip injury, and the past three years I have put everything into returning to competition at the highest level and the goal to reach my fifth Olympic Games. There have been really promising days during this challenging process, and I have kept my spirits up despite many who questioned or doubted me,” Mancuso said in a statement released by U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
“Sadly, I haven’t found the progression to compete with the best in the world again, but I’m proud to have fought until the very end. It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to ski racing, but I do so with a full heart.”
Mancuso’s skiing career began at Squaw Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains — host of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Every day, she passed the Olympic rings going to and from school. To a young skier, it drove home the fact that she could strive to be the best in the world.
On Squaw Valley’s wide-open and steep terrain, she also learned to love skiing as much as ski racing. She shared this love, often talking about ripping up deep powder on Squaw’s KT-22, a peak with steep chutes and cliffs, with as much passion as she discussed ski racing.
A five-time junior world champion, Mancuso raced her first world cup when she was 15 years old, then was named to her first Olympic team in 2002 at 17. Coaches told her to just soak in the experience and learn from it. The 2002 Games would likely be the first of many for the talented young ski racer.
Looking back, Mancuso wished that her coaches had provided more positive encouragement, such as “You can do this, you never know, you could be on the podium.”
She finished 13th in the combined in Salt Lake City.
“If someone had told you that you can actually get a medal, maybe you would have gotten a medal,” she said recently.
Mancuso’s first medal came at the next Olympic Winter Games. The U.S. women had yet to meet expectations at the 2006 Torino Games. But Mancuso, then 21, did not wilt under pressure. On the night before the giant slalom, she ate Pop Tarts and watched figure skating, then on the day of her race, forgot her credentials, reported Ski Racing Magazine. Still, she remained unfazed.
On a snowy, foggy day in the Italian Alps, Mancuso won the first run of giant slalom, then built on her lead second run to win her first Olympic medal – a gold.
“It was sort of just another day on a stormy course, and that helped take off the pressure,” Mancuso told reporters after the race. “It wasn’t about the Olympics, it was about skiing, not about winning, or thinking about what place I’m in. It was just about kicking out of the start gate and trying to go my fastest.”
“She’s proven over and over again that she can handle the pressure at the big events,” then U.S. director of alpine skiing Jesse Hunt presciently said.
The gold medal launched Mancuso into the big time.
But the hip pain that she began experiencing at age 18 had worsened. She was born with hip dysplasia, and her hip joint was deteriorating. She had surgery after the 2006 season, and it appeared to fix the problem. She was back on the world cup tour the following winter. Over the next two seasons, she earned almost a third of her 36 career world cup podium finishes and won her third (of five total) world championship medals.
Then Mancuso was beset with a back injury. By the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, she had not been on the podium in two years.
But she has always held an unflappable belief in herself. On a sunny day on Whistler’s Blackcomb Mountain, Mancuso laid down what looked like a perfect downhill run. She held the lead until Vonn bumped her to second place. The silver was Mancuso’s second Olympic medal.
A day later, she finished second in the super combined, earning double silver medals at the 2010 Olympics.
“Coming off a back injury last year, I was in a lot of rehab,” she told reporters after winning the silver medal in downhill. “I knew that I just had to hang on and keep going for it. It's really been a tough, long road. I'm happy to be in a position where I feel healthy.”
It appeared that Mancuso was, well, back. And over the next four years, she claimed another 16 world cup podium finishes and two more world championship medals.
But in the season leading to the Sochi 2014 Games, she again had mediocre results, although she improved after taking a mid-season break to regroup at home in Squaw Valley. She realized that she was putting too much energy on the Olympics and wasn’t focusing on just skiing. She also dealt with some nagging equipment issues during that break.
And again, she never lost belief in herself.
In Sochi, in the combined, she won the downhill, then held on in slalom to claim a bronze medal — her fourth and now final Olympic medal.
“For me, knowing in my heart that I can do it, I crossed the finish line and could say, ‘See, it works! Believing in yourself really works! I got a medal today!’” she gushed after the race.
Known for her energetic, fun-loving personality just as much as her speed, Mancuso donned a tiara for each of her Olympic medal ceremonies.
Mancuso opened the 2014-15 season by finishing third in the Lake Louise World Cup downhill, part of a historic USA sweep with Vonn in first and Stacey Cook second. It was Mancuso’s last world cup podium. At the end of that season, she had hip surgery again.
This time, recovery was more difficult. She regained strength and tried to train. But mostly, she was focusing on being pain free. Skiing, she said, was easier than walking.
“I’ve come to sort of a realization that it’s not going to be perfect, so I just have to manage the pain,” she said during the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah.
One of the bright spots during her recovery: she married Dylan Fish, a talented surfer who manages a resort in Fiji.
Mancuso was determined to make one final Olympic team this year. She had hoped to race in Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December — where she claimed four of her world cup podium finishes — but moved her first race back a week, to a super-G in St. Moritz, Switzerland that she did not finish.
She tried again in two super-Gs in Val d’Isere, France, a week later. But her best result was 42nd. And on a deep team of American speed racers, Mancuso was behind eight other women.
She was on the start list of the super-G in Bad Kleinkirchheim last weekend but did not start. Over the past week, she realized that her dream of a fifth Olympics was out of reach.
Mancuso leaves behind a legacy of more than Olympic and world championship medals. The flamboyant Californian inspired a generation of young athletes and ski racers.
“I remember watching Julia compete [in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games],” said Jackie Wiles, who was 9 in 2002 and is now one of the top downhill racers on the U.S. Ski Team as she approaches her second Olympics. “That was a big moment, it was such an awe-inspiring moment. It was that moment that I realized this is really what I wanted to do.”
For Mancuso, the ski racer who grew up in an Olympic community and who won four Olympic medals, one of them gold, retirement is bittersweet move beyond her Olympic dreams.
“Winning an Olympic gold is something you’ll never really realize,” she said recently. “Everyone asks what it means. But it’s hard to describe what it means. But it’s also something that you’ll have forever. It’s something that I’m really proud that I accomplished.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.