Just before the Sochi Olympics started, Julia Mancuso was asked to comment on the absence of her more famous teammate on the U.S. Ski Team, Lindsey Vonn. “It just leaves a lot of opportunity for everyone else,” she said.
Mancuso seized that opportunity on Monday in the combined downhill-slalom ski race. She did not win, but her bronze was victory ample enough, allowing her to fully emerge from Vonn’s long shadow.
The race was won by Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, a result that confirmed her status as one of the greatest women skiers of all time. She was the favourite going into the race and Monday’s victory takes her Olympic gold tally to three. Silver went to Nicole Hosp of Austria, who had won the downhill race in the combined event.
Canada’s Marie-Michèle Gagnon, who was the world cup leader in the combined event heading into Sochi, had a disastrous day. She finished 21st in the downhill run and crashed out in the slalom.
While Gagnon did not expect a winning performance in the downhill, she had hoped to make up lost time in the slalom – her specialty. She was one of at least nine women who crashed or missed gates on the very steep slalom run.
Gagnon was taken away from the slalom hill by ambulance with a dislocated left shoulder. A spokesman for the women's ski team said her shoulder was put back in place almost immediately and that she was not in pain Monday night, local time. Gagnon intends to compete later this week in the technical events - the giant slalom and the slalom.
Mancuso’s bronze brings her Olympic medal tally to four, a record for a woman on the U.S. ski team, though Vonn has more world cup titles, including four overall world cup championships. Vonn was felled before the Olympics by a knee injury, allowing her teammates to shine at Sochi – or not.
While there was no doubt that Mancuso is one of the best skiers on the planet, it was Vonn and her glamorous lifestyle – her boyfriend is Tiger Woods – who utterly dominated the media coverage of the U.S. women’s ski team.
With Vonn out of the picture at Sochi – and possibly for the rest of the world cup season – it is Mancuso who has become the media darling and the U.S. team’s best hope for podium finishes in the alpine events. The pressure on her to excel no doubt increased on Sunday, when teammate Bode Miller failed to reach the podium in the downhill, in spite of winning two test runs.
“I feel amazed,” Mancuso said after the race. “It is an unbelievable day. To win another medal is a just a dream come true.”
Mancuso, who is from Reno, Nev., won gold the giant slalom in the Turin Games in 2006 and took silver in both the downhill and the combined in Vancouver in 2010, where Vonn won gold in the downhill.
Vonn’s absence makes her a leading contender for gold in Wednesday’s downhill -- she led the downhill race of the combined by nearly half a second. If she takes gold in the downhill, the question may be: Lindsey who?