KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — No one else could hear Denny Tuffanelli encourage his granddaughter to a record fifth Olympic medal Monday morning.
But Julia Mancuso heard his words of love and support just as she did in 2006, and she rode them to a bronze medal in the women’s super combined.
“The biggest thing I remember from Torino, when I won the gold medal, my first run, I came down winning and it was a first for me,” said Mancuso, who led the downhill portion of the women’s super combined Monday morning. “I had never won a run. And then in between runs when I was able to see my family, it was my grandpa who was just keeping everyone calm and saying, ‘It’s OK, you know, you already won a run in the Olympics. That’s amazing. You can be really proud of that.’ Today when I won the first run in the downhill, it just reminded me of that moment. It was like my grandpa was telling me today, ‘OK, you won a run at the Olympics so far in Sochi, so you can be really proud of that, no matter what happens in the slalom.’ That’s why I dedicated the race to him, and really went for it in the slalom and skied with my heart.”
After posting the fastest time in the downhill portion, Mancuso used the faith of her grandfather to ski the slalom fast enough for third place with a time of 2:35.15. Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch won the gold with a time of 2:34.62, while Austria’s Nicole Hosp earned silver with a time of 2:35.02.
As soon as Mancuso crossed the finish line and looked at the clock, she knew she’d earned her fifth Olympic medal (first bronze), which makes her one of just three U.S. winter sports athletes to earn medals in three different Olympics. The other two are long track speedskater Bonnie Blair and short track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno.
The 29-year-old tiara-wearing, Squaw Valley, Calif., native, who graduated from Park City’s Winter Sports School and is known as “Super Jules” proved that regardless of what she does anywhere else, she thrives on the Olympic stage. Her accomplishment Monday is a feat no other man or woman U.S. alpine skier has achieved — winning a medal in three consecutive Olympics.
“It’s just a real testament of believing in your dreams,” said Mancuso, whose best finish this season was seventh place. “It’s an honor to join such a group of successful athletes, to be able to (medal) in three straight Olympics, I can’t even really describe it.”
As she stood in the finish area, she dedicated the race to her grandpa, who passed away just before world championships after battling brain cancer that was first diagnosed in the summer.
“It was a real shock for me last year when my grandpa got sick,” Mancuso said. “My grandpa has always been one of the biggest supports to me and kind of the glue that binds our family together. We’re a bunch of girls, and he’s always been the guy keeping us calm. We’re his angels though.”
Mancuso said it was her grandfather’s love and confidence that enabled her to “ski with my heart” on Monday, and it’s the love of her family and the support of her coaches that inspired her to believe in herself as she struggled through the grueling World Cup season.
“I really felt like this summer, after my training, that I’d be coming in here as the favorite and the person to beat,” Mancuso said. “What happened was just the opposite. I spent so much time just focusing on making everything perfect, that when the first races this season didn’t go perfect, I sort of freaked out and started questioning every single thing that I had been doing and searching for answers.”
That doubt crept into her skiing and eventually festered into fear.
“I was scared, and downhill is a scary sport,” she said. “And I found myself standing in the start gate a little bit scared to go 80 miles an hour. I was just hoping that everything went well, and that made me not love it.”
Mancuso said it was the support of her family and the extra time the Olympics allows her to spend focusing on herself and her skiing that helped her succeed on the treacherous Sochi downhill course.
“It comes back to basics,” she said of how she found faith in herself without any impressive results. “This year, every time I crossed the finish line, I didn’t feel like myself on the hill. I didn’t feel like I skied my best. And when I crossed the finish line, my results showed I wasn’t my best. I felt like a completely different person.”
Some time with her family, which she credits for helping her feel secure enough to foster Olympic-sized dreams, was the adjustment she needed.
“I started to become proud of my result,” she said. “It didn’t matter if I was seventh or 13th. I just felt really proud of my skiing and that’s what I kept and that’s what I used in these races.”
Growing up in Squaw Valley, she said, planted seeds of Olympic glory in her heart that hard work and faith have nurtured to fruition.
“I think it’s love,” she said of what her family does specifically. “It’s a lot of love. And something I do, I just really think of gold. I’ve been thinking of standing on that podium, and I’ve been dreaming of it. It’s visualizing, thinking positive thoughts, I just think how great things are going to happen for me. I just try to stay there no matter what. I really feel anything can happen in these races. I just go out there and fight my hardest.”
There is still an opportunity for Mancuso to blaze new ground as she competes in all of the women's alpine events.
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