Mancuso snows 'em

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SESTRIERE, Italy -- It was a gold-medal run you didn't have to see to believe because you couldn't really see it.

Julia Mancuso, a shadowy figure representing the United States, descended from the starting gate into a snowstorm and ultimately emerged at the foggy bottom as the winner of the women's Olympic giant slalom yesterday.

Mancuso's time of 2 minutes, 09.19 seconds flashed onto the leader board between snow squalls, and it was clear enough to earn the American the victory by .67 of a second over Tanja Poutianen of Finland. Anna Ottosson of Sweden earned the bronze with a time of 2:10.33.

Mancuso could not have skied to victory at a better time for the beleaguered U.S. women's team, which was one visibility-poor second run from leaving Turin without any medals.

Her performance, in fact, may be registered in Olympic annals as an expedition, with footage forwarded to the National Geographic Society.

While other competitors skied off into the woods - 11 second-run skiers failed to complete their runs - Mancuso put her brain on autopilot and recalled the days when she tore out the door of her Lake Tahoe home and took on all kinds of snow.

"It felt just like skiing powder at Squaw Valley," she said.

That may sound like fun, but most Olympic skiers prefer packed, water-injected surfaces scraped to the bone by course slippers.

The advantage Mancuso held over the rest of the field was that she didn't panic when she woke up yesterday to deteriorating conditions.

"I'm used to going as fast as I can down the hill, whether it's in blizzards or powder days or when I can't see anything," Mancuso said. "I know where my feet are, and I know how to react when conditions get tough."

Mancuso's gold was precious metal for the American stockpile. Mancuso became only the second U.S. woman since 1994 to win an alpine medal and the first American woman to win the giant slalom since Debbie Armstrong at the 1984 Sarajevo Games.

Mancuso joined Ted Ligety as the only Americans to win alpine medals here. Like Ligety, Mancuso's gold-medal breakthrough was her first major victory.

These Olympics were not treating Mancuso kindly before yesterday. She and Lindsey Kildow were the budding U.S. stars, yet were 0-for-Turin headed into the final women's event. Kildow at least had an excuse, her medal-earning capacity ruined by a training accident two days before the downhill.

Mancuso just seemed to be stuck in third gear. She finished seventh in the downhill, ninth in the combined event and 11th in super-giant slalom. She did not race in Wednesday's slalom.

A double bronze-medal winner at last year's world championships, she was the U.S. team's hottest skier before the Olympics, posting three top-three finishes on the World Cup circuit just before she arrived in Sestriere.

Yet, the most talked-about story involving Mancuso until yesterday involved her initial arrival here in her own recreational vehicle.

Mancuso parked the motor home next to RVs occupied by U.S. men's stars Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller.

Rahlves had the biggest rig and Mancuso's was the smallest, prompting some to refer to the vehicles as "Papa Bear," "Mama Bear" and "Baby Bear."

Mancuso, though, was not allowed to tap into power at the adjacent hotel, so her father had to buy her a generator.

Just as it seemed her Olympic experience would be far from memorable, though, the skies opened and dumped snow by the ton.

April Mancuso, her older sister and a former ski racer, recognized the conditions immediately.

"Tahoe day," April said. "Full on. Snow, fog, Just like home."

Chris Dufresne writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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