While a skier named Vonn may hog the headlines, 29-year-old Julia Mancuso reigns as the queen of American skiing: Her three Olympic medals make Mancuso—not Picabo Street, not Lindsey Vonn—the most decorated female alpine skier in American history. But Mancuso doesn't mind being overlooked.
"I know now that it can be tough when you have a bunch of attention and aren’t doing well,” Mancuso says. “You have to remember that you’re on the slopes for yourself and even when you’re overwhelmed and feeling pressured you are doing it for yourself.”
The 29-year old knows the spotlight well: She first went to the Olympics in 2002, when she was just 17. She’d already notched her first World Cup win the year before. She would wind up capturing the gold medal in the giant slalom at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, and tack on two silvers—one each in super combined and downhill—in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics.
Today, Mancuso focuses on the Super G, the second-fastest of the four alpine disciplines. She’s placed second in the world in the event in the last two World Cup seasons. Unlike the downhill, where skiers get practice runs, when Super G racers step onto the course, it’s for real. And Mancuso likes that.
“You only get one shot at it, and it’s fast,” she says. “You have to use your ability to react quickly and adapt and I’m good when it comes to using my natural instinct on the race course.”
She has more than just instinct, though. Mancuso’s experience has been invaluable not just to her progressing career, but to her U.S. teammates. Now that she’s a veteran, Mancuso offers wisdom to younger skiers, who are inspired by the teammate nicknamed “Super Jules.”
“She’s always been free-spirited, always doing her own thing,” teammate Stacey Cook told the New York Times. Cook added that Mancuso has helped create a sense of camaraderie on the team, as evidenced in a music video she created for her web series, “I AM Julia Mancuso.” In the video, ski team members lip sync to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” while skiing and wearing GoPro cameras.
Off the race track, Mancuso lives in a world far removed from the slopes: Hawaii. There, her off-snow training includes free diving—a sport where swimmers plunge without snorkels or scuba tanks, holding their breath while exploring the deep.
“I love to dive because it gives me complete mental focus and allows me to expand my lungs and really focus on the present moment while observing my surroundings,” says Mancuso. And while that sense of observation is far afield from the zipping-by of scenery on the slopes, she thinks the diving has made her a better racer. “I think it helps skiing, both mentally and physically. I really feel better in my lung capacity.”
She’s also credited her Hawaiian stays with prolonging her career. She’s considered retiring in the past, but is back for her fourth Olympics. And while she’s not favored to win a medal, don’t count Mancuso out in Sochi…or out of the next Games. America’s most decorated female alpine Olympian loves a challenge.
“It is nice to accomplish things that you aren’t sure are possible,” she says. —Greg Presto