Fun before medals
ASPEN – It makes sense that Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller share the same agent. The two share the same opinions on a lot of things.Like Miller, the untamed, unabashed star of American alpine skiing, Mancuso isn’t concerned with winning medals at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, in February. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association wants its athletes to win more medals than any other country in Turin, thus validating its “Best in the World” motto.Mancuso would rather talk about setting a good example for children and using the Olympic stage to shed light on global health problems. “Going into the Olympics, I think it’s an opportunity to express love and show that, you know we do a lot of stuff, but for me it’s not about winning,” she said Wednesday.Not about winning?”It’s important to realize what the Olympics are and what I’m doing as an athlete,” Mancuso said. “I think it’s really important to be more supportive as a role model. … It’s not about the medals for me. It’s about skiing and just figuring it out better just to stay positive for the kids and the children who need support.”
FreeskiingMancuso, who hails from Olympic Valley in Northern California, grew up carving turns at nearby Squaw Valley. She said her coaches at the Squaw Valley Ski Club took a laid-back approach to alpine training when she was a young talent with Olympic dreams. There were no speed suits or stopwatches.”I just grew up freeskiing and skiing from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, and gates just took up a fraction of the time,” she said. “When you go skiing, it’s more about freeskiing than anything else. It’s being out in the mountains and being outside.” When she joined the U.S. Ski Team at 16 and made the jump to the World Cup level, Mancuso said the constant travel took its toll. She dreamed of traveling around Western Europe in a Volkswagen van instead of hopping flights and living out of a suitcase.Before this season, her sixth on the World Cup circuit, she bought a Winnebago to live in while she competes in Europe, just like Miller started doing two years ago. One of her lifelong friends is going to drive the camper and be her personal chef. Her older sister, April, a former ski racer herself, is also coming along for the ride. “I think that I influenced him, actually,” Mancuso said of Miller and his decision to get a camper. “I just thought it would be kind of cool to have a traveling suitcase so I wouldn’t have to load my bags all the time. It only happened now because I have friends who are old enough to drive it with insurance.”No shtickAlso like Miller, Mancuso isn’t particularly warm with the media, especially when it comes to questions about results and Olympic expectations. She’ll continue to hear the same questions for the next three months.
Mancuso’s answers to reporters’ questions at a news conference Wednesday were deliberately different than those of Lindsey Kildow, Mancuso’s 21-year-old counterpart on the U.S. Ski Team who hails from Vail. Both racers are expected to compete for medals in Aspen this weekend, as well as in Torino, after a succession of strong World Cup results that date back to last season.But Kildow, who won the downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, Friday – her second career World Cup win – took those expectations seriously on Wednesday. While Kildow talked about her hopes to ski well this week after disappointing results here last year, Mancuso doodled on a piece of paper or stared off into space.When asked about her own hopes while in Aspen, Mancuso answered with “I’m thinking of lots of really great stores to shop in and the prize money to buy me lots of new clothes.”There were other highlights from the 30-minute interview session. Mancuso’s responses didn’t seem to be to get a rise out of the assembled press but, rather, honest answers to questions she’s heard over and over. No sugarcoating. No shtick. Just the truth.Mancuso, who competes in slalom, giant slalom super G and downhill, said she isn’t a four-event skier.”I actually ski about six events. Those other two include freeskiing and hitting the [terrain] park whenever I can,” she said. “I think that skiing, just the cool thing about it is you can do anything. … It’s all one event to me.”
The OlympicsShe also said that if she is to win a medal in Torino, it will be because she’s not focusing all of her energy on it. Mancuso refined her answer by saying she got into a rut when she was too focused on times and finishing orders. Since she quit stressing about results, the strong finishes have come. She ended last season with five top fives. There were also the two bronze medals at the World Championships in Bormio, Italy – one in super-G and one in slalom. The last woman to accomplish such a feat was Picabo Street, best known for winning Olympic silver in the downhill in 1994 and Olympic gold in super G in 1998. Still, nobody references Mancuso as the next Picabo. That title falls to Kildow, who said Wednesday that she speaks regularly with the retired Street during the long World Cup season.Mancuso, on the other hand, seems content to just be herself and follow her own path. She said that as a girl she used to dream of winning an Olympic medal, but those priorities have shifted.”It’s funny because you have all these expectations you have to deal with from people,” she said. “I have to turn that around with myself because for me, the fun comes before the medals. If the medals come before the fun, the medals don’t come.”Bode would be proud.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado