KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – When U.S. skier Julia Mancuso woke up Monday morning and flipped through her email, there was a message waiting from U.S. Alpine press officer Doug Haney.
"Bring your podium clothes."
That confidence wouldn't be for naught. Not after Mancuso captured bronze in the super combined, obliterating all comers in the downhill and then hanging on in a choppy slalom run. Indeed, Mancuso gleefully embraced the hardware after being quite uncertain that she could finish her slalom run. She hadn't even raced competitively in the discipline since February 2013. And while Haney was quite confident that Mancuso would need her podium clothes, she hedged. They were packed in a bag for use but ultimately left back in her room.
[Related: Mancuso wins fourth career medal]
Super combined "was, I felt like, kind of a long shot for me," Mancuso admitted. "I have less than 10 days of slalom [training] this year. Sometimes that's better — just go for it."
There was no doubting that mantra in her furious downhill run, which was so perfect that you wouldn't have been surprised if it had been accompanied by a sonic boom. Mancuso finished at 1:42.68, which was .47 seconds better than Switzerland's second-place finisher, Lara Gut. More important, it gave her a 1.04-second lead on Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the world champion and favorite in super combined.
But Mancuso knew she had almost no significant time put into her slalom training, and there was at least some thought in her mind that just finishing that portion of the race might be an achievement — a thought that was probably shared by spectators as she came out of the starting house bleeding time, all while Hoefl-Riesch watched nervously from below. As Mancuso neared the foot of the course, she began lunging forward in hopes of keeping the podium from slipping away.
"It sure didn't feel good," Mancuso said of her 52.47 slalom time, which was 13th overall in the run. "I definitely had moments in my mind where I was thinking, 'This is not going to be good enough, but keep fighting.'
"I really thought I was blowing it … but I knew just fight to the finish. I'm sure it was one of those courses where everyone didn't feel great. Crossing the finish line, just seeing my name in the top three, it didn't even matter if I could have been better. All that mattered to me was crossing that finish line with a solid run."
It certainly mattered in the record books, too. The bronze is Mancuso's fourth Olympic medal, joining a gold from Turin in 2006 in the giant slalom and a pair of silvers from Vancouver in 2010 in the downhill and super combined. It's also the first time in history that a woman in the Alpine program has medaled in three straight Olympic Games. The only other Winter Olympians who have accomplished that feat? Speedskaters Apolo Ohno and Bonnie Blair.
And lest anyone forget, Mancuso's haul of four medals is twice as many as those owned by more celebrated names like Lindsey Vonn and Picabo Street, who have two apiece. She could add to that haul, too, as one of the favorites in the downhill. With Vonn absent from these games, there's little debating that the door is wide open for another star to step forward. For it to be a semifriendly rival from Vonn's childhood would only make it more intriguing.
"Skiing and growing up with someone like Lindsey, who's just amazing on the World Cup and breaking records left and right there — to have something that I can break records in at the same time is also fun and exciting for me," Mancuso said. "It's a totally different thing, but it's just great accomplishments that I'm really proud of, too."
The podium also does little to diminish Mancuso's reputation as an Olympic event skier, as she has seemed to peak every four years — from Turin to Vancouver and now Sochi. This wasn't lost on her counterparts, who all seemed unsurprised after she ripped off a dominating downhill performance on Monday.
"Nothing surprises me with [Mancuso]," Hoefl-Riesch said Monday. "She always does really well in the big races."
"It's her free spirit," said Great Britain's Chemmy Alcott. "She's just so uninhibited."
[Slideshow: Women's super combined skiing]
Now Mancuso is staring down even bigger expectations in Wednesday's downhill event. She took silver in the discipline in Vancouver in 2010, finishing behind only Vonn. If Monday was any indication, she might be even faster this time around.
"With that big number [in the downhill portion], it was a pretty amazing run...," U.S. ski team coach Alex Hoedelmoser said. "The snow actually got a little bit slower with the later numbers. So it's even more impressive that she could put in such a gap there."
Time will tell if Mancuso can replicate Monday's magic. But two things are certain, headed into the downhill: There's no Vonn to stand in her way and seemingly no reason to unpack the podium clothes.
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