The caption to the photo on Julia Mancuso's U.S. ski team bio goes like this: "With eight major championships medals, Julia Mancuso is hands down the most dominant big race skier the U.S. Ski Team has ever experienced."
In her fourth Olympic Games, Mancuso used all that big-race experience to show just how dominant she still can be, winning bronze in the women's super combined. The medal is the fourth of her illustrious Olympic career, the most of any American woman in Alpine history at the Games. She adds the bronze to her gold and two silver medals, unparalleled success for an American rider—though perhaps still a bit bittersweet.
Mancuso set the tone during the downhill run of the combined event, completing the course in a blistering 1:42.68, nearly half a second ahead of the competition. Perhaps most importantly, Mancuso was more than a second ahead of German Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the reigning world champion and 2010 gold medalist in the super combined.
Hoefl-Riesch would not be denied another gold, however, dominating the medal contenders in the slalom run—besting Mancuso by more than a second and a half—to sneak across the line just 0.17 ahead of silver medalist Nicole Hosp of Austria.
It was all there for Mancuso as she stood in the starting gate for the slalom run. Her lead on the field grew after Swiss rider Lara Gut—second in the standings after the downhill—missed an early gate in her slalom run and was disqualified. The added cushion still wasn't enough for Mancuso, who was very loose at the top of her slalom run, struggling on the icy parts of the course that gave many racers fits along the hill's steepest drop.
With nine racers, including three medal contenders, unable to finish the slalom run in the super combined, Mancuso looked both relieved and genuinely excited to come home with bronze in the first Alpine women's event. Most racers celebrated just completing the course, so coming home with bronze must feel rewarding.
Yet for a skier with her career success and a chance to redeem the loss four years ago as Hoefl-Riesch stood at the base of the hill in first position, the bronze has to feel somewhat disappointing.
Mancuso's Olympic career has been full of bittersweet success. After winning a gold medal in the 2006 giant slalom in Torino, Mancuso vaulted into the nation's Olympic consciousness. But in 2010, Mancuso was overshadowed on the slopes, not just by Hoefl-Riesch—Mancuso finished +0.94 behind the German to win silver in the super combined four years ago—but by American teammate Lindsey Vonn as well.
While Mancuso was the lone American to medal in the super combined in Vancouver, it was Vonn's absence from the podium that became the bigger story.
It was Vonn, like Mancuso this year, who had a significant lead after the downhill run of the 2010 super combined, but Vonn missed a gate in her slalom run and did not finish, opening the door for Hoefl-Riesch and Mancuso to take home gold and silver, respectively.
Mancuso won the medal, but Vonn's mistake dominated the news cycle, taking a bit of shine off that silver.
Three days later, it was Vonn grabbing the spotlight from Mancuso again, besting her teammate's time in the women's downhill final by more than half a second to win gold, while Mancuso settled, again, for silver.
With Vonn unable to compete in Sochi after failing to recover in time from injury, the door for American Alpine immortality swung wide open for Mancuso, as she told CNN's Matt Majendie on January 28:
I'd be lying if I said Lindsey not being there (at Sochi) doesn't help. It's been so tough for her this year with her injury and not knowing whether she would compete. But as a competitor it's definitely one less rival for me.
Look at Vancouver. I had the run of my life. I was a second quicker than the next girl and Lindsey was still better. So this is obviously a huge opportunity for me.
Through one event in Sochi, the opportunity has not been lost, even if her chance for a second career gold medal was.
It's funny—and perhaps a bit American-centric—for us to have spent so much time focusing on the rivalry between Mancuso and Vonn when Hoefl-Riesch has proved, at least in the super combined at the Olympics, to be more of a rival for Mancuso.
By the looks of it, Mancuso is quite happy with her bronze, making the run more sweet than bitter. After all, she is now just one of seven women's Alpine skiers in Olympic history to win at least four medals.
She is also one of just two American Olympians—along with men's racer Bode Miller—to win four or more Alpine medals in a career.
And her Olympic career feels far from over. With how well she raced in the super combined—specifically in the downhill—Mancuso has a very good chance of adding to her medal tally. Of course, winning another gold would be the sweetest, but winning any more medals in an amazing Olympic career would feel pretty darn sweet.
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