- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy — Julia Mancuso never knew what this felt like. To win a major race, or even to lead after the first run.

And yet the 21-year-old Californian knew exactly what this felt like. To launch herself into the kind of whitewash of dense fog and driving snow that enveloped the Olympic giant slalom course yesterday.

So she shut out the unknown and focused on the familiar. Her reward: A gold medal, the first for U.S. women in Alpine skiing since 1998 and their first medal of any kind at these Games.

“Just another day on a stormy race course,” said Mancuso, who has seen plenty of such afternoons back home near Lake Tahoe. “That sort of helped me take the pressure.”

Just another day?

Mancuso awoke without a breakthrough victory in the Olympics, World Championships or World Cup. She ranks only ninth in the World Cup giant slalom standings. Extra incentive: The U.S. women’s Alpine team entered its final race here without any finishes better than sixth — forget about earning a medal — at either of the past two Olympics.

“She knew today she had to do it,” her father, Ciro, said.

Entering the second run, Mancuso was clinging to a mere 0.18-second lead over Sweden’s Anja Paerson, who won the slalom here and was bidding for a record-tying sixth Olympic medal.

The conditions were challenging enough that the race was shortened, the floodlights were on for the opening midmorning run and course workers kept repainting the course’s blue outlines. Skier after skier ahead of Mancusco barely managed to negotiate unusually tricky turns on fresh flakes.

“I was ready to give my best and not hold back just because I couldn’t see,” said Mancuso, who dispensed with the costume jewelry tiara she sported in an earlier race in favor of a white helmet that blended with the snowfall.

Somehow, some way, she struck the proper balance between going right at the gates and using enough caution to stay upright. She had the second-fastest closing run for a cumulative time of 2 minutes, 9.19 seconds — 0.67 ahead of Tanja Poutiainen, whose silver was the first ever Alpine Olympic medal for Finland. Anna Ottosson of Sweden was 1.14 behind for the bronze.

Paerson wound up sixth, and her father and coach, Anders, said afterward she might need knee surgery after the World Cup season. At least Paerson raced. Croatia’s Janica Kostelic, the defending champion, and U.S. star Lindsey Kildow missed the race because of illness or injury.

Even if the field was diluted, Mancuso had to come through.

“You’re not going to win at this level, in these conditions,” said U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president Bill Marolt, “unless you’re mentally really tough.”

Clearly Mancuso is.

First on skis before age 2, pulled along on a tether by Mom, Mancuso was beating boys regularly by the time she was 7. When it was too cold for others in Squaw Valley, Calif., little Jules would stay out there.

Then there’s this: When Mancuso was 5, her father was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to operating what authorities said was a $120 million marijuana smuggling operation. Her parents are divorced.

“There were definitely some difficult times,” Mancuso said shortly before the Olympics, “but looking back now, it’s nothing that’s traumatized me.”

She draws strength from her family, and they were there in force. Her mother. Her father. Her grandparents of Italian heritage. Her older sister April, who raced on the University of Utah ski team. April has been driving Julia’s RV in Europe and whipped her up a breakfast of cereal, yogurt and fruit before the race.

She almost didn’t make it. In her hurry to get to the hill, Mancuso forgot her official credential and had to talk her way over to the starting gate.

“I was just excited to finally race the GS,” she said, “and show the world what I could do.”

There have been flashes of her talent before.

She has finished second or third in World Cup events, and won two bronze medals at the 2005 Alpine World Championships, the first American woman to claim two medals at a worlds since Picabo Street in 1996.

It was Street who won the super-G at the Nagano Games for the last U.S. women’s Olympic gold in Alpine skiing. Debbie Armstrong in 1984 was the last American woman to win the Olympic giant slalom.

That was the year Mancuso was born, as was men’s combined champion Ted Ligety, who will race the slalom today.

So instead of all the U.S. skiers expected to do well at these Olympics — Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves, Kildow — the team’s two medals came from a pair of 21-year-olds who once took a physics class together at a Park City, Utah, skiing academy.

“She’s been getting ready to do this since she was 3 years old,” said Mancuso’s mother, Andrea. “Just watch her. You can see she loves to ski.”

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