Julia Mancuso ready to soar | AspenTimes.com

Julia Mancuso ready to soar

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Published: AP file
AP | AP

ASPEN ” Finally, a chance to breathe.

A hectic summer spent crisscrossing the globe ” from New Zealand to Tanzania, London to Beijing ” has passed. The alpine World Cup ski season will not begin in earnest until Thanksgiving weekend’s visit here for Aspen Winternational.

Julia Mancuso, one of the U.S. Ski Team’s most dynamic and charismatic stars, is slated to join teammates in Colorado on Friday. For the time being, she has retreated to Maui’s familiar shores for a brief, yet welcome respite.

She’s taking time to reflect, to heal, to train ” maybe even surf.

Time to regroup before the frenzy of another season commences.

Time to contemplate the road ahead.

“I’ve been going strong all summer, so it’s nice to be home to do some dry land, relax and get everything together,” the 24-year-old said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m excited about this year. I see it as a new beginning.”

Mancuso refers to last season as a “big learning experience.” Fellow countrymen Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn staked their claim to World Cup overall crowns ” Vonn’s was the first for a U.S. woman since Tamara McKinney in 1983. Mancuso, Lange’s outgoing cover model who used to don a silver tiara during slalom races, struggled to stand out.

The Olympic Valley, Calif., native was a fixture near the top of the leaderboard for much of the winter, yet never topped the podium. Mancuso struggled to dial in her equipment early on after the International Ski Federation changed its guidelines. She battled nagging hip and back injuries ” “I didn’t think they were such a big deal, so I neglected them and didn’t get enough rest,” she said.

She struggled with consistency from race to race. Earlier this year, she followed up a slalom disqualification and three straight 22nd-or-worse finishes with six straight top 10s. She was 25th in the ensuing super combined in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and did not finish two of her final four races.

The 2006 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist, who broke into professional racing at age 15, last won on the World Cup circuit on March 3, 2007, in a downhill in Tarvisio, Italy. Her impressive 20 top-10 finishes accrued in four different disciplines in 2007-2008 are of little consolation, Mancuso said.

The title drought has left her largely unfulfilled, yet as determined as ever.

“It’s not always about doing the right things. Everything has to come together,” Mancuso said. “The year before [last], I felt like I put in less effort during the summer because of having [hip] surgery … and the next year after working harder in the summer and putting a lot more focus into my skiing, I had so-so results.

“It makes me want to push even harder, to keep my eyes up and stay confident.”

Mancuso exudes confidence these days. She talks openly about finishing in the top three in the overall like she did two seasons ago. Enthusiasm permeates her voice when she ponders a return to the snow.

“I guess every time I get off it, I can’t wait till I get back on,” she said. “I’m ready. I’m in a good state of mind right now.”

With good reason. Mancuso enters the ski season armed with much more than an enviable track record. She is perpetually upbeat these days, a direct result of what she contends is a new perspective on life.

The origins of this renewed outlook stem from Mancuso’s whirlwind summer. In June, she and friend and British skier Chemmy Alcott, among others, traveled to Africa to summit 5,100-foot Kilimanjaro. Mancuso calls the experience her journey of self reflection.

“So off I go to the Summit. It will be a journey to reflect on everything in life that’s worth living for and enjoying and sharing,” Mancuso wrote in a June 1 online blog entry. “Yes, it will be perhaps a test of will and wet feet and being ‘uncomfortable’ but much more than that I hope to find some answers to the deepest questions I have bottled up inside.”

Mancuso and Alcott endeavored to seek out a challenging, meaningful trip as a means to raise money for Right to Play, an international organization that incorporates sport in disadvantaged areas of the world in an effort to both improve health and develop life skills. Climbing a mountain, Mancuso said, seemed like the natural fit for two women so used to skiing down.

The trip took on a deeply personal tone for Mancuso. Her grandmother, Betsy, succumbed to cancer just days before the skier left London for Nairobi. A picture of Mancuso holding a homemade flag adorned with Betsy’s name and photograph figures prominently on the skier’s website.

The jaunt concluded with a visit to a Tanzanian village to witness first-hand the efforts of the charity for which Mancuso and Alcott helped raise nearly $40,000.

Mancuso still remembers the smiles some five months later.

“These kids can only play a couple times a week, and you can see how much they look forward to it,” she said. “Where I came from I was skiing every day at their age. Supporting them is really important to me … It humbled me and put things into perspective.”

So, too, did a trip to Beijing to work as an NBC correspondent at the Summer Olympics. While she was covering the games instead of participating, Mancuso, in typical fashion, dove in. She went to nine events in one day and appeared on NBC’s Today Show.

She was in the stands at the Water Cube to watch Michael Phelps snatch victory from defeat, somehow managing to out-touch Serbian Milorad Cavic at the wall to win the seventh and most dramatic of his record eight golds.

She got bumping and setting tips from beach volleyball gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, then watched Walsh embrace her brother after victory.

“She was so emotional and so happy ” it’s a feeling you can only get at the Olympics,” Mancuso said. “I usually get my Olympic kick every four years. I had my awesome Olympic experience in Torino, then to two years later have this experience is Beijing … is pretty freaking amazing. You can just feel the energy.

“It made me appreciate my sport so much more. … the Olympic fire is inside me again.”

Her chance to make a run at a second gold in Vancouver is nearly two years away. For now, Mancuso’s sights are squarely set on the upcoming season, especially February’s World Championships in Val d’Isere, France ” site of her first World Cup victory in December 2006.

Mancuso is nearly healthy. Equipment issues are a distant memory. And she is undeterred after a 17th-place finish in Oct. 25’s season-opening giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier above Soelden, Austria ” the direct result of a bobble on her first run.

“It’s such an early race that it can be a false indicator of the season,” Mancuso said. “If you do well, you have one good race under your belt, but if you fall short your goal is all upwards. … I like to get my mistakes out of the way early.”

After Soelden, Mancuso flew home to Maui on Oct. 29 to decompress.

Now, after an offseason like none she had ever experienced, Mancuso said she is grateful, re-energized and eager to make this season count.

“I got to see the world from a different aspect … it opened my eyes,” she added. “I feel like that can only help with my skiing.

“I feel like the only place I can go is up.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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