U.S. women at home in Aspen | VailDaily.com

U.S. women at home in Aspen

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Olympic giant slalom gold medalist Julia Mancuso doesn’t pick favorites.”I wouldn’t say one race is more important than the next,” she said Tuesday afternoon.Then again, racing in Aspen – the only U.S. stop on the women’s World Cup circuit – does stand out. There are the home fans, and the opportunity for family and friends to come and watch. “It’s just fun because I’m at home and surrounded by all the people who support me in America,” said Mancuso, who hails from the resort village of Olympic Valley, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. “It’s always exciting to race in Aspen. It’s sort of the pacesetter of the season.”There’s also the twisting, technical course down the face of Aspen Mountain – one that Mancuso and teammate Resi Stiegler both find challenging. After passing inspection earlier this week, the course is set to go for Saturday’s giant slalom and Sunday’s slalom.”The GS is always pretty wide open up top, then the rest of the way down it’s super rolly,” Mancuso said. “There’s always something going on. You have to be on your toes.””A lot of the other hills in Europe are pretty basic for slalom and GS,” said Stiegler, a native of Jackson, Wyo., who is the daughter of former Austrian Olympic champion Pepi Stiegler. “I think it’s one of the cooler hills. It reminds me of my winter hometown of Lienz, Austria. I really relate to the different rolls and how the hill changes direction a lot.”

Carrying mo?Stiegler, in her fifth year on the U.S. Ski Team, is looking to carry the momentum she gained from a 10th-place finish in the season-opening slalom in Levi, Finland, with her to Aspen.She’s been skiing as fast as she ever has, in spite of a broken hand and an ankle injury she’s been nursing back to health. The hand injury – which she sustained more than a month ago when she clipped a GS gate toward the end of the national team’s preseason camp in Chile – has actually helped her find better balance.”It’s been a couple of weeks getting used to holding a pole with a brace,” Stiegler said. “I ended up actually having to duct-tape the pole to my hand. It helps with (balance) because you have to center yourself.”Mancuso is also riding a wave of confidence, following her gold-medal performance in Sestriere, Italy, in February. She had offseason hip surgery to repair torn cartilage in the joint, but feels “100 percent” at this point after months of rehab.She’s really looking forward to this World Cup season, which guarantees to be less scrutinized than last winter’s. She admitted she grew tired of the media crush leading up the Torino Winter Games in February.

“It’s just kind of a relief for the Olympics to be over,” she said. “Just the fact that I know that I’m capable of winning, I want to go out there and keep progressing … With the Olympics comes a lot of medal attention. There’s definitely the same focus going into every race this year, but overall, it’s just a little bit more relaxed.”While the Olympics are old news, there are still the World Championships in March in Are, Sweden. Mancuso on the goMancuso – who has yet to win a World Cup race, but had three podium finishes last season before the Olympics – first established herself as a big event skier at the previous world championships in Santa Caterina, Italy, in February 2005. There, she won bronze medals in giant slalom and super-G.The Olympic gold again showed her ability to turn it on when the stakes are the highest.For some reason, it’s easy for her to embrace the opportunity presented by a huge race, she said. It’s easier said than done, but psychologically she doesn’t freeze up in the spotlight.

“I just see it as an opportunity to show the world how you shine in your sport,” she said. “For me, I’ve never been afraid of (the spotlight.) I just put so much positive energy into those races that it’s paid off.”Stiegler believes the worlds – in skiing circles – are just as big as the Olympics, and that this season is by no means less important.After taking a week off to celebrate her 21st birthday back in Jackson with family and friends, she’s ready to get back to business.The women’s team had a chance to freeski the Winternational course on Sunday, and that sneak peek got Stiegler fired up for this weekend’s races.”I love Aspen,” she said. “I’ve always been a fan of it. It’s a challenging hill. If you have the right person set the right course, you can really hammer it. The snow conditions are amazing.”I’m really excited to lay one down on hard snow.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com.

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