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Mancuso finds success on her terms

March 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

Back when Julia Mancuso was still a Mighty Mite, barely taller than her skis, she decided she should have a poster just like all those famous skiers whose pictures were plastered across Squaw Valley.

She grabbed one of Olympic downhill champ Tommy Moe, flipped it over and began drawing with a black marker. When she finished the self-portrait, she scrawled "4-time ollympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso" across the top in bold letters. At the bottom, she wrote, "America's top performer Rossignol, and Julia Mancuso."

"I think I was kind of a little brat," Mancuso says now, laughing. "I just remember looking at all those ski posters and thinking I wanted one of my own. It was sort of a joke."

Now it's a collector's item.

A gold medalist at the Turin Olympics last year, Mancuso is on the verge of winning the overall World Cup title. With six races left, she's tied atop the overall standings with Austrian Renate Goetschl. Two other Austrians, Nicole Hosp and Marlies Schild, are close behind.

Just how big a deal is it? Tamara McKinney is the only U.S. woman to win the overall title. Since McKinney's 1983 victory, Mancuso is the only American to lead the overall standings at any point in the season.

Diann Roffe, Picabo Street, Lindsey Kildow -- none have been where Mancuso is right now.

"We're all rooting for her," McKinney said. "It'd be so great -- but I don't want to put extra pressure on her by saying that. For what she's been able to do so far in her career, she's done a great job. To be where she is already is really, really rare. It's a gift that she has."

Best of all, Mancuso's considerable success has come on her terms.

The Californian, who turned 23 on Friday, is a free spirit who is always having a good time. She's been known to sport a tiara on the slopes, and once posed in a bikini and ski boots. Ever since she lost a bet with the team trainer, she's showed up at victory ceremonies in a full-length dirndl, the traditional Austrian dress.

She's been traveling Europe this season in a recreational vehicle that was handed down from Daron Rahlves and once used by the Everly Brothers. She describes it as a "mini Vegas" because of all its mirrors, and friends have decorated it with colorful sarongs.

When the season ends, she and some friends are taking off to backpack in Thailand. There's always a crowd around her, and British skier Chemmy Alcott joked that she was going to a party last weekend just to see how many guys would try to get close to Mancuso.

She's considered one of the most laid-back skiers on the circuit and is often still joking with technician Andrea Vianello in the last seconds before she leaves the gate.

When it comes to racing, though, she's as driven as any Austrian.

"She's a really smart girl. She can grasp concepts very easily, and put that into action on the skis and on the snow. That's something you can't really coach," said Chris Knight, the U.S. technical coach.

"It does look like she's having a good time, but at the same time, she's very serious about it underneath."

The same could have been said about Bode Miller. Immensely talented with the personality to match, Miller created stories everywhere he turned before and during Turin.

Unlike Miller, who collapsed under the weight of the attention and expectations, Mancuso seems to thrive the hotter the spotlight gets. Skiing has been all about fun since her first trip to the slopes.

Mancuso has been skiing since she was 2 and was racing by the time she was 8.

"The coolest thing about skiing is just being outside, the wind blowing in your face. It's freedom. It's totally freedom," she said. "It's your own expression of art. You can look at your tracks. You can go straight, you can turn. You can cruise around and enjoy the scenery, or you can go straight for time and do as many runs as you want."

For a time, skiing also might have been her escape.

Her father, wealthy Lake Tahoe developer Ciro Mancuso, pleaded guilty in 1995 to operating what authorities said was a $120-million marijuana smuggling operation. After cooperating with authorities, he served about five years in prison.

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