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The Olympics are full of heartwarming stories about athletes and families who overcome the odds to achieve improbable goals. In just the past few days, we've learned about men's moguls gold medalist Alex Bilodeau, who dedicated his achievement to a brother who suffers from cerebral palsy, and Canada's Dufour-Lapointe sisters, the trio who dominated the women's moguls competition. These are the kinds of stories that make the Olympics more than just a sports event and something more like a cultural event.
However, not every story of an athlete's family conforms to such a sunny narrative. The case of Ciro Mancuso, father of U.S. skiing star and Sochi bronze medalist Julia Mancuso, is one of them. In Sochi, Ciro is an important part of his daughter's support system and fan section. Two decades ago, though, he was in a very different situation.
In 1989, when Julia was only 5 years old, Mancuso was arrested at the family's Lake Tahoe home on the suspicion of his role in a drug operation that smuggled an estimated 45 tons of marijuana (plus a not insubstantial amount of cocaine) during the '70s and '80s. After prosecutors built a case over more than a decade, Mancuso was eventually sentenced to nine years in federal prison. He served four years (and kept approximately $5 million of his profits) after cutting a deal with authorities.
[Photos: Meet the medal winners from Team USA]
More details are available on Wikipedia and in a The Rumpus piece published around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (The latter paints the entire Mancuso family in what appears to be the worst possible light, so it's worth reading some of its conclusions with that in mind. Regardless, it has plenty of facts.)
So, what does all this have to do with Julia Mancuso? For one thing, the story has served as an addendum to all the accomplishments in her skiing career. When Mancuso won the Olympic gold medal in giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games, Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News spoke to the family about the impact of her father's arrest and incarceration:
"There are circumstances in (Julia's) childhood that certainly made her a tough human being and caused her to focus and face adversity and not let it faze her," said Andrea Mancuso, Ciro's ex-wife and Julia's mother. "Look at the conditions today. Obviously it didn't faze her at all."
At the same time, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated also wrote about Ciro's case in the context of his daugher's career:
[Video: Sochi minute]
Julia has lived for long stretches of her adolescence with a mother whom she lovingly calls "a great mom who did a great job with us.'' (Ciro and Andrea Mancuso had three daughters -- Julia is in the middle between April, 25, and Sarah, 16 -- and divorced in 1992; Andrea will also be in Italy to watch her daughter ski.) As a young adult, Julia has welcomed her father back.
Ciro Mancuso says, "Everything that happened around Julia made her tougher; you see it in the way she competes.''
Her mother sees it differently: "She took everything out on the slopes,'' she says. "And look at the outcome.''
Five days before the Olympic downhill, Julia sat in the basement lounge of a hotel next to the Olympic Village. Her family story unfolded in chapters. At first she was too young to understand, and then too teen to care. Finally, she was old enough to learn and to listen to her father's story and find its place in her life. "As bad as it sounds, it wasn't all that terrible, nothing was traumatic,'' she says. "My mom was great, and I was never mad at my father for going away.''
More recently, Mancuso herself spoke about how her father's issues helped her focus as a young athlete. From mostly unrelated November 2013 piece by Kelley McMillan for The New York Times:
“It made me really focused, and I just wanted to ski all the time,” she said. “I wasn’t going to focus on my dad being gone. I was just going to try and ski really fast.”
This remains a complicated situation with many connections to the recent history of the United States, but the Mancusos have apparently not let it overwhelm their daughter's career aspirations. If anything, they (or at least she) have figured out a way to channel these personal difficulties into something constructive. This history is a part of Julia Mancuso's approach to her sport. While most Olympic stories focus on the positive and uplifting, Mancuso's is a reminder that Olympians can reach the heights of their sports through many different kinds of inspirations.
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