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By Howard Fendrich | Associated Press
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- For years, Julia Mancuso's skiing accomplishments -- and there were many -- were overshadowed by Lindsey Vonn's.
When it comes to Olympic Alpine events, though, no American woman comes close.
Turning in a terrific run to lead after the downhill, then recovering from a rattling start in the slalom, Mancuso earned the bronze in the super-combined at the Sochi Games on Monday for her fourth medal at an Olympics. She already was the only U.S. female Alpine racer with more than two, which is Vonn's total.
"Skiing and growing up with someone like Lindsey, who's just amazing on the World Cup and breaking records left and right there -- to have something that I can break records in at the same time is also fun and exciting for me," said Mancuso, whose two-run time of 2 minutes, 35.15 seconds was 0.53 slower than champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.
"If I can keep the Olympics as my thing, that's fine," Mancuso said, "and I'm really proud of it."
It sure showed Monday, the way she punched the air and screamed for joy after the slalom, did a jig on her step of the podium during the flower ceremony, then ran around with a U.S. flag, hugging family members.
She won the gold in the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games, then silvers in the super-combined and downhill at Vancouver in 2010. Only two other Winter Olympians from the U.S., speedskater Bonnie Blair and short track star Apolo Anton Ohno, have won individual medals at three editions of the games.
"She is everything you want your athletes to be," said Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. "She brings herself to her best possible level of preparation and puts it all out there."
Only four women from anywhere own more Alpine medals than Mancuso, who can increase her total over the next two weeks, starting with Wednesday's downhill. The record of six is shared by Croatia's Janica Kostelic and Sweden's Anja Paerson.
The 29-year-old Mancuso, who grew up in Squaw Valley, Calif., was asked what's different about her when she's in an Olympic start hut.
"I feel more nervous. It's not nerves of failure, it's just nerves," she explained. "There's just a lot of emotion and knowing that, 'This is my chance. This is my shot.'"
At the 2010 Olympics, Vonn edged Mancuso in the downhill and added a bronze in the super-G. But because of recent knee surgery, Vonn is back in the U.S. this time around, commentating for NBC instead of competing.
While Vonn's resume includes 59 World Cup race victories and four overall titles, Mancuso's never enjoyed that sort of success. Mancuso has seven career World Cup wins, and really struggled this season, never better than seventh.
There were problems figuring which boots to use. There was the potential for a real crisis of confidence.
In December, she took time off to gather herself with an eye to the Olympics.
"You definitely start to doubt things, for sure. ... The best thing we could have done is take a break for Christmas and New Year and then get back into it," said Chris Knight, Mancuso's personal coach on the U.S. team. "It was like pressing the reset button for her, and it has worked."
Knight, who's from New Zealand, also offered a theory for why Mancuso thrives at the Winter Games.
"She loves peaking for the big events. I mean, America doesn't know what's going on outside of the Olympics, right?" he said.
After Mancuso's strong downhill Monday morning gave her a nearly half-second lead on the field, she still had to deal with a steep slalom course, one that nine of 31 starters failed to complete in the afternoon. No small matter, given that it had been more than a year since she completed a full slalom.
And the last time she raced such a challenging slalom?
"It's been a while," U.S. women's coach Alex Hoedlmoser said with a laugh.
But with the lights along the Rosa Khutor course gleaming off her neon orange helmet, and a gold scarf tucked under her chin, Mancuso was good enough to sneak into the medals, 0.13 behind silver winner Nicole Hosp of Austria, and 0.10 ahead of fourth-place finisher Tina Maze of Slovenia, last season's overall World Cup champion.
"It's really inspiring," U.S. teammate Leanne Smith said, "for everyone here to see how much of a gamer she is, every Olympics."