Not so long ago, American Olympic medalists in alpine skiing were often flashes of brilliance out of the clear blue nothing.
Debbie Armstrong. Tommy Moe. Bill Johnson.
All Olympic champions, all with a very limited résumés on the World Cup circuit where the best alpine skiers make their lunch money.
When it comes to understanding why Julia Mancuso, the most decorated American woman in Olympic alpine skiing history, seems forever overlooked, that is a good place to start.
On Monday, Mancuso won her fourth Olympic medal, a bronze in the combined event that includes one run of downhill and one run of slalom. No other American woman has more than three; only one American man, Bode Miller, has more (five).
Yet in this Olympics, Mancuso would probably rank fifth on a list of top American alpine skiers, coming in behind Miller, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Lindsey Vonn (who isn’t even here due to injury).
The reason? They are World Cup champions.
While Americans enjoyed some success in World Cups in the past – most notably the Mahre brothers and Picabo Street – America’s current level of success in the sport is unprecedented. Miller has twice won the World Cup overall title – the laurel bestowed on the world’s best skier that year. Vonn has won it four times. Ligety has won the World Cup giant slalom title four times, and Shiffrin, only 18, has already won the slalom title once and is on her way to doing it again this year.
By that measure, Mancuso is an underachiever. While her World Cup résumé would stack up impressively against many Americans past – she finished second in the super-G season standings last year – it pales compared with Americans present.
In other words, she is a victim of America’s success.
She is also a throwback American skier – one who grew up not even knowing that a World Cup circuit existed but instead dreaming of the Olympics, passing by the 1960 Olympic rings in her hometown of Squaw Valley, Calif., every day on her way to school.
She is a skier whose offseason workout involves surfing and deep diving for shells near her Maui home. When her results faltered this year, she even took a break from the World Cup circuit to return to Hawaii.
That attitude is so out of sync with some of America’s other top skiers, that it even led to an estrangement with Vonn, with whom Mancuso had skied since she was 12. Vonn’s workout regimen was so intense that Mancuso felt she was leaving the team behind.
In 2007, ''she got married, and that's when her career turned, and she was just really focused on trying to win,'' Mancuso told The New York Times last November. ''It was a really intense part of her life.''
The two have since patched up differences, with Mancuso telling the Times: “We feel a lot more like teammates and not rivals.''
But there is no doubt that Mancuso is a different breed of elite skier. She plays the ukulele and once traveled between World Cup events in Europe in a Volkswagen van decorated with tie-dyed sarongs. In 2010, she started a lingerie company called Kiss My Tiara, a reference to the fact that she’s worn a tiara her three times on the Olympic medal stand as part of an inside joke with a coach.
She also excels in bad conditions. Most top racers crave consistency on courses so they know how far to push themselves. On Sunday, Miller said flat light played a role in his disappointing eighth-place finish in the downhill. Mancuso just shows up and lets it rip.
Her gold in the Turin giant slalom came amid a driving snowstorm. Her silvers in Vancouver for combined and downhill came in Whistler’s slushy conditions.
And she leaves no doubts, the Olympics are what she cares about most. In the skiing world, this is not always typical. The Olympics are skiing’s biggest event, but most skiers will tell you that the World Cup is a better gauge of talent, and therefore means more to them. Winning an Olympic medal is for popularity, winning on the World Cup is for professional respect.
But Mancuso openly said she used this season’s World Cup only to prepare for the Olympics, and she loves that the Olympics generally involve skiing a new and unfamiliar course. On the World Cup, skiers ski the same courses year after year.
"I just excel at skiing new courses," Mancuso told the Associated Press. "If it's somewhere new and everyone is not quite used to it and if you add the pressure of the Olympics … it for some reason takes the pressure off and makes it more about skiing."
Wins 'out of nowhere'
That could help explain how her wins seem to come out of nowhere.
Before Turin, she’d never won a World Cup race. Before Vancouver, she had only one top three finish on the World Cup that year. This year, her best finish on the World Cup circuit has been seventh.
On Monday, she had a soupy track – temperatures were in the 40s – and blew away the field in the downhill, finishing with a 0.48 second lead. That was a good thing, because she’s a speed skier, not a technical skier – which was abundantly evident in the slalom.
Four racers after current World Cup leader German Maria Hoefl-Riesch laid down a beautiful run, textbook in its balance and edge, Mancuso looked like she was in a rodeo, on the verge of being pitched from the course at any moment. Her slalom run was the 13th best of the day, but her downhill had spotted her enough of an advantage to scrape bronze.
Far from being disappointed after having lost her lead, she was jubilant, knowing her last run had been about simply hanging on.
Besides, Mancuso doesn’t do disappointed very well.
"I love to have fun in my life in whatever I do and whatever life brings, whether that's on the ski slopes or designing underwear," Mancuso told CNN.
"I just want to have fun. I want to smile a lot and bring smiles."
On Monday, she did just that. Break out the tiara.