Published on Powder.com | December 2013
At her permanent home in Maui, one of Julia Mancuso's World Cup trophies moonlights as a flower vase. It's one of the only trophies you'll see in her brightly colored house—the others reside at her parents' homes.
While one of the country's top female racers is proud of her many World Cup and Olympic accomplishments—including Olympic medals and 35 World Cup podiums—she's not really one for possessions or acclaim. The 29 year old would rather look forward than back. "Other people probably enjoy them more than I do," she says. "I have the memories."
One memory, in particular, marked a turning point in her career: It was at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, and the snow was falling as hard as it does when a low pressure system settles over her home mountain of Squaw Valley, California. Visibility was poor, the GS course before her lit only by the dark contrast of the gates against a disorienting world of white. A faint smile crossed her face before she pushed out of the starting gate. The wet and heavy blizzard was familiar, reminiscent of storms she grew up racing in the Sierra Nevada. Holding nothing back, ponytail whipping behind her, she zipped around the gates, angling so sharply that the black bases of her skis flashed with each turn. Two minutes and nine seconds later, Mancuso won the gold.
"Crossing the finish line and seeing that I won was surreal," says Mancuso, who created further buzz by donning a tiara—a gag gift from her coach—on the victory stand. "It was like a dream."
But that dream, and her road to ski racing's upper echelon, wasn't always such a tiara-clad fairy tale. In fact, early in her young career, it was filled with visions of prisons instead of princesses.
At age 5, when Mancuso was just in Kindergarten, the feds invaded the Mancuso household in the fall of 1989 with charges against her father, Ciro, for running a $140 million marijuana smuggling operation. In 1995, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. After cooperating with authorities, he was released in 2000 after serving five years. But those were impressionable years for Mancuso, who kept bashing gates as her father sat behind bars. While her home life might have been as disorienting as the race course in Torino, skiing was a constant she could control. "Even though he was gone, I didn't really care," she says. "I just skied a lot. Time went by fast. I loved him, but I it was like, 'This is my thing, I just want to ski every day.'"
That she did, so well that she quickly became one of the top women racers in U.S. Ski Team history. Today, Mancuso brushes off questions about her dad's criminal past. It happened a long time ago, she says, and she's moved past it, just like she has racers on the World Cup circuit. In fact, she now lives next door to her father in Maui and calls him one of her closest confidants. Besides, she says, her story is really more about staying positive, loving the mountains, and staying true to her spirit. It's how she lives her life and how she approaches skiing.
It's the staying positive part that has perhaps fueled her to the most victory stands. Mancuso says that she always knew she would win a gold medal. Most agree that if she sets her mind to something, it will happen. She's strong-willed, some would even say stubborn, and focused. She has a raw talent and natural gift for athletics that she's fine-tuned over a lifetime committed to knocking gates, or recently, free diving in the ocean. Compared to some of her teammates, Mancuso's training regiment is relatively laid back and could include anything from skiing fresh powder to surfing to hucking cliffs, into deep snow or water, depending on the season. "Her strengths are going fast and straight and charging," sums up her coach, Chris Knight.
Her older sister, April Mancuso Reynolds, credits her sister's success to an intuitive ability to listen to her body. If she needs a rest day, Reynolds says, she will rest. If she needs sleep, she'll go to bed, even if they're in the middle of a late-night conversation. If it's time to train hard, she'll give it her all. "She always wanted to win. She has that winning spirit and that drive more than most people," says Reynolds. "Her competitiveness is what got her as far as she did. You should see her, especially with my dad. She won't even let Dad win when they ski together."
Even when she's not focused on winning Olympic medals, Mancuso applies her competitive drive and obsession with health and fitness to business. She owns a gym in Truckee, California, and designs "lucky" underwear for her friends and family. Mancuso's lingerie line is appropriately named both for her first Olympic podium and her general approach to life—Kiss My Tiara.
If Mancuso sounds confident, it's because she is. And she's carried this attitude her whole career. Growing up in Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Olympics 24 years before she was even born, she's fostered the Olympic dream ever since she first set foot on skis. Every time she drove to her family's house in Squaw, she'd pass the eternal flame flickering in the Olympic torch at the bottom of Squaw Valley road. When she was still a young child she even drew a picture of herself winning the Olympics.
For as long as she can remember, Mancuso was up at 7:30 a.m., running out the door to ski with her race team. She'd chase Reynolds, who is four years older, across the mountain, stoking a competitive spirit that still thrives today. And she's done so with the full support of her family, all skiers, the most influential of which was Ciro. He drove her to races as a kid to wax her skis and was in Torino cheering with the rest of the Mancuso clan when she won the gold.
After Torino, Mancuso took those traits to the World Cup. "That was a new goal for me," she says. "All of a sudden, I had a new passion." In the six years that followed, Mancuso won seven World Cup events, dominating in downhill, super-G, and giant slalom, although she's landed on the podium in all five disciplines of Alpine skiing. Her best season was in 2007 when she landed third overall.
Her results suffered when knee, hip, and back injuries surfaced the next year. She didn't podium in a World Cup event in 2009. But then she took the world by surprise again at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, winning two silver medals in downhill and super combined, giving her three for her career—more than any other female U.S. racer.
Over the last two years, Mancuso has been steadily carving out a permanent spot in the upper tier of women's ski racing. Last season, she landed on the podium four times in Super G and took second in the discipline standings.
Now, almost eight years after winning the gold in Torino, she's in the midst of her third Olympics in Sochi and is in a different place. No longer is she the wild card. She's the veteran, not the new girl. And her expectations are high.
"I'm going into the Olympics coming off a lot of steady results," says Mancuso, although she currently ranks just 20th in the overall World Cup standings. "I feel more like a favorite. I feel more like I'm in a position where I have more to lose, like I'm expected to do well now. That's tough because I've never been like that. I've always been the underdog going into the Olympics. But it feels good because I'm skiing that well. It's not about having the run of my life. It's skiing how I know how to ski and I know I'll do really good."
"Ciro is a big reason why Julia is so much like Julia," says Galen Gifford, Mancuso's manager. "He's such an athlete himself. He expects greatness. Ciro is a winner and he breeds winners."
Despite whatever indiscretions he might have had in the past, he instilled that can-do attitude in his daughter. And dealing with life's curveballs might well have helped her adapt to and deal with the tight curves of a race course.
I've learned that in my skiing, the more I think I know where I'm going and want to be on a perfect line, the slower I am because I'm too early," says Mancuso. "I'm just waiting for it to happen instead of taking it as it comes and feeling the mountain and feeling my edge. It's more keeping your edges clean and going with the flow. That's when I'm the fastest."