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Friday, February 24, 2006
Mancuso doesn't buckle under the pressure

By Carrie Sheinberg
Special to ESPN.com

SESTRIERE, Italy -- Back in California, inside the Squaw Valley Ski Team clubhouse, a child's crude image of a single stick-figure ski racer has been hanging on the wall since Julia Mancuso drew her self-portrait with a Magic Marker when she was 8 years old.

Here in Sestriere, on Friday, when Mancuso, now 21, placed one pole at a time over the start wand at the top of the Olympic giant slalom course, she could not have been further away from Squaw Valley, and the pressure could not have been greater.

She led after the first of two runs, a position she had never held before even on the World Cup circuit, and was staring through a blinding snowstorm in the Italian Alps.

And yet, she was more at home, and more comfortable, than you might think. When the timer counted down from 10 to zero, and as the crowd grew quiet, Mancuso actually grinned, recognizing the voices of some of the course workers.

"A bunch of my old coaches from Squaw Valley volunteered to come over here and work on the course," Mancuso said about the friends she could hear from the start house. "I have so many friends and family here who are so close to my heart that came to cheer for me."

She lunged out of the gate and onto the relentlessly "turny" course, which had already claimed many of her competitors. Yet, Mancuso somehow cruised smoothly through the wet, heavy snow and across the bumpy rutted turns, which happened to look familiar.

"We were always training in bad weather [in Squaw Valley], the snow and the visibility were just like home," she said. "I just trusted myself."

Remarkably, as Mancuso came over the first pitch and onto the course's rugged steep midsection, she was not just holding her lead, but building on it. The subtle touch she had developed over years of training in snow so heavy, often called "Sierra cement," was kicking in at the perfect moment.

Mancuso was comfortable.

Even the night before, when she had stayed up a little too late in her RV, munching on an impromptu dinner of leftover spaghetti and pop tarts, Mancuso felt immune to the pressures of the big event. No pregame rituals, no press conferences. Just a little late-night TV. She could not pull herself away from the drama of the ladies' figure skating final.

This is vintage Mancuso, a laid-back California girl who would never waste her time with the pressures and stresses of life. She is known to don a tiara when she races slalom, forget her credential on race day (as she did Friday) and giggle away the anxiety-ridden moments at the start of a competition. Yet, unleash her on any athletic task, and this adorable youngster will steal your lunch. Of course, she is so charming, you might not even mind.

When Mancuso came out of the fog and onto the rolling lower section of the course, she was loose. Her turns linked from gate to gate as she neared the finish stadium and her lead held through difficult spots where other racers had faltered.

For Mancuso, the heavy snow was a blessing in disguise.

"I think because it was bad weather, it didn't seem like the Olympics, where you dream that everything is perfect," Mancuso said. "It was sort of just another day on a stormy race course. It wasn't about the Olympics, it was about skiing, not about winning, or thinking about what place I'm in, just about kicking out of the start gate and trying to go my fastest."

Her fastest was good enough for gold. She slid calmly to a stop, looked at the board, and then grinned. Again. In trademark Mancuso style, she was happy, but not shocked.

For her family, however, the moment was a bit different.

"I don't think I've ever been so nervous in my life," said her older sister April. "Especially with the course and stuff, but I knew, the one person that could do it is Julia. She's so grounded. She just has this attitude. Some people go into the Olympics and they think it's the only race in their life, and for her, it's a bonus."

True to form, Mancuso danced her way up to the winner's podium in the finish area. It was the first time Mancuso had ever climbed onto the top step in a major competition. She waved and smiled, clearly happy, and yet somehow, not out of place.

While cameras flashed and Mancuso smiled, the sun was just coming up in Squaw Valley. For anyone in the ski team clubhouse, the writing above Mancuso's 13-year-old stick-figure skier would be becoming visible. It reads, "Julia Mancuso, Olympic champion."

Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.