The new faces of the U.S. ski team | AspenTimes.com

The new faces of the U.S. ski team

Nate Peterson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Julia Mancuso modeling for the Lange Girl Poster in Aspen, CO November 24, 2006.

One is the newest Lange girl, showing off her taut body in a print ad campaign where she poses in her bright-blue ski boots and little else. The other is newly married and, aside from ski racing, is a self-described bookworm who took German lessons in the offseason.

At 23, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn couldn’t be more different. And, for that matter, any better suited to fill the vacuum left by Bode Miller, the enigmatic superstar who opted to part ways with the U.S. Ski Team in May after 11 seasons.

In the wake of Miller’s departure, Mancuso and Vonn have become the new faces of U.S. alpine skiing. Like Miller, both are four-event skiers who excel in the speed events of downhill and super G. Both matured into elite World Cup competitors earlier than expected.

Mancuso won two bronze medals at the 2003 World Championships, then a gold in giant slalom at the 2006 Winter Olympics ” all before she ever won a World Cup race.

She did that and much more last season, picking up four wins and six podiums to finish third in the overall World Cup standings in the best season for an American ski racer since Tamara McKinney’s magical run to the overall title in 1984.

Vonn (formerly Kildow) found success earlier on the World Cup circuit, winning her first race at 20. She has won six times since and finished on the podium another 14 times. Until last season, however, she had failed to deliver a medal at ski racing’s biggest events: the World Alpine Ski Championships and the Winter Olympics. She finally shed the “big race” monkey in February at the World Championships in Are, Sweden, earning silvers in super G and downhill.

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While linked by success, Vonn and Mancuso aren’t necessarily close off the hill. Two seasons ago, a sportswriter from USA Today wrote that the relationship between the two was similar to the bitter rivalry that existed between American skiing greats Picabo Street and Hilary Lindh in the ’90s.

Vonn and Mancuso both have said that comparison is inaccurate and that they have a healthy relationship. Vonn even called Mancuso her “biggest asset,” noting that her teammate pushes her to be better.

The mischaracterization may have stemmed from the different approaches each brings to ski racing and the vastly different lives they lead in the offseason. Mancuso grew up skiing at California’s Squaw Valley, running gates for the sheer fun of it. Her carefree approach to competition ” including wearing a tiara while running slaloms earlier in her career ” is a stark contrast to Vonn, a Minnesota native who moved to Vail as a teenager to pursue her World Cup dreams.

The daughter of a ski racer, Vonn grew up idolizing Street, and embodies the same serious, fiercely competitive approach that made Street the winner she was. When Vonn was in the hospital following a disastrous downhill training crash at the Turin Winter Olympics, it was Street who spent the night at her bedside.

Vonn married longtime boyfriend and former U.S. national team racer Thomas Vonn in September, following a summer spent rehabbing her knees in Austria and working on her German.

Mancuso, meanwhile, spent her summer traveling the globe in search of adventures and good waves ” including sojourns in Thailand, Costa Rica and Nicaragua ” and at her father’s home on Maui’s north shore. Since 2005, she’s also traveled the European leg of the World Cup circuit in her own RV and refuses to get caught up in the expectations heaped upon her by the media, both things that have led scribes to draw comparisons between her and Miller.

As for the Lange campaign, she said she embraced it as another channel to share her unique outlook on competition and life.

“From most people, I’ve gotten a great response,” she said. “I think for me being a female athlete, it’s really important for me to associate myself with sponsors for females. … Just putting out the whole message of being an athlete and being a girl or a woman and being healthy and just enjoying being feminine. Competing from that point of view, instead of the typical one.”

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