KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — This morning, Julia Mancuso received an email from U.S. Ski Team press officer Doug Haney telling her to bring her podium clothes to the women’s super combined race.
“I’m not going to bring them,” she thought. “But I know I’m going to get a medal.”
After laying down a near-perfect downhill run and hanging on through a rugged slalom, the 29-year-old Californian won a bronze medal — her fourth Olympic medal and first bronze. She is the first U.S. skier to win medals in three different Olympic Winter Games, and she has twice as many Olympic medals as any other American female skier.
Maria Hoefl-Riesch from Germany won the super combined, with Austria’s Nicole Hosp in second.
“[Julia] is everything you want your athletes to be,” said Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “She has the ability to focus, she has the ability at the moment to bring herself to her best possible level of preparation, and she puts it all out there. It’s a great message to all of the people who are involved in our sport, in competitive skiing.”
Known as a big event skier, Mancuso battled through a snowstorm at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games and won a gold medal in giant slalom, the only alpine hardware for the U.S. women’s ski team at that Games. Four years later, she came to Vancouver with mediocre world cup results that season and won two silver medals.
In addition to her four Olympic medals, Mancuso also has five world championship medals in her collection. But in 15 years on the world cup tour, she has only won seven races.
Mancuso credits growing up in Squaw Valley, Calif., with her ability to rise to the occasion in big events. Host to the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley is steeped in Olympic history, and the ski area’s difficult terrain constantly challenged Mancuso. She also loves the scene at the Olympic Games.
“She really sucks up the energy going into the Games,” said women’s head coach Alex Hoedlmoser. “It fills her up with energy. She goes to the Opening Ceremony and tells the other girls, ‘You got to go.’ She’s just a true champion who knows how to perform in big events.”
Mancuso came to Sochi after mediocre world cup results this season, although she was steadily improving after she took a break in December to regroup at home in Squaw Valley. She realized that she was putting too much energy on the Winter Games and wasn’t focusing on just skiing. She also dealt with some nagging equipment issues during the break.
Despite a lot of skepticism, she never lost the belief that she could do it. When she crossed the slalom finish line at Rosa Khutor and saw a “3” on the scoreboard, she raised her arms and looked more joyful than winner Hoefl-Riesch.
“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.
Her self-confidence at these Games was evident from the minute she kicked out of the downhill start this morning. Where other skiers threw their skis across the hill to make the tight turns, Mancuso cleanly carved through them. Her time put her 1.04 ahead of Hoefl-Riesch.
The real test would be the slalom though. Mancuso hasn’t raced a full-length slalom in over a year and hasn’t trained the discipline either. And the slalom hill at Rosa Khutor is not for the faint-of-heart. Icy and steep, the hill softened in the warm temperatures, causing ruts and holes to form on the course. Before Mancuso ran, several top racers had been bucked off the course.
A gold medal seemed out of reach — she did not have a big enough gap on better slalom skiers. But she knew she had a shot.
“I was just thinking ‘Stay calm and ski with my heart,’ and I skied my heart out,” she said with a huge smile. “It sure didn’t feel good. I definitely had moments in my mind where I was thinking, ‘This is not going to be good enough, keep fighting.’ And surprise, I looked up and got a medal!”
Mancuso tweeted that she was dedicating the race to her grandfather who passed away last year.
"When I won on the first run in the giant slalom in Torino, my grandpa was so proud of me and said, 'Nothing else matters now; you've already won my race,’” Mancuso said after winning the downhill this morning. “He's in the heavens now, so I'm looking up to him right now. This is for my grandpa."
Laurenne Ross, Stacey Cook and Leanne Smith also competed in the super combined. Ross and Cook didn’t finish the downhill, and Smith missed a gate in slalom.
Mancuso’s next race is the downhill on Wednesday.
“Now I know how to be fast,” she said. “It has a lot to do with aerodynamics and just keep on fighting to the finish. I think I can have a great downhill, too.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.