Commentary

Mancuso latest to join Games' 'star' club

Updated: February 19, 2010, 1:11 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- After a muscular Wednesday, the United States not only won more medals in a single day than it ever had in the Winter Games, it also set up an intra-federation rivalry to determine just who will walk into the closing ceremonies as the face of the Winter Games.

Shaun White, snowboarder extraordinaire who looks more like the Silver Surfer than an athlete, was non-stop front-page material. Not only is he a fantastic showman with clever titles -- who wouldn't love a jump called the "Double McTwist 1260"? -- but snowboarding provides the best pictures.

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso
Jerry Lai/US PresswireAfter crashing out on her slalom run, Lindsey Vonn, right, congratulated American teammate Julia Mancuso.

Shani Davis, the speedskater who has built his legend in the middle distances, is one of just four Americans, including White, to repeat as consecutive Olympic champions. Davis sizzled to victory in the 1,000 meters. And if the story is really true that Davis was the inspiration for the superhero Frozone in the film "The Incredibles," he's already got a movie to his credit.

And, of course, there was Lindsey Vonn, her shin injury elevating her even higher, positioned to be the household name of these Olympics.

But star power is only part of the equation. The other part is that superb Olympic performance can make a star, too. America has a new one in Julia Mancuso, who won silver for the second consecutive day, this time in the women's super-combined -- the discipline which consists of a downhill run followed by a slalom run.

"I don't know what she feels because I don't have any medals, but I know what she says," said Chemmy Alcott of Great Britain. "It is so amazing. She didn't anticipate that today. Yesterday, she knew she had what it took to get to the podium in the downhill, but she hasn't been very confident in her slalom. She hasn't done much slalom at all. But she loves this ice. She loves this condition, and yes, she is a massive threat. Watch out for the rest of the Olympics."

Germany's Maria Riesch won the gold, and Sweden's Anja Paerson -- who, among other racers, suffered such a terrible crash in Wednesday's downhill that Olympic officials effectively removed the treacherous finishing jump and shortened the course by 20 seconds -- won bronze.

Vonn, meanwhile, held the lead entering her slalom run, but near the midpoint of the course caught her right ski on the outside gate and crashed. She did not finish. "I wish I'd made it all the way down," Vonn said.

Under the shimmering aura of Vonn, Mancuso has played the wingman to her formidable, wildly accomplished teammate, both during the year and in the run-up to the Games, as Vonn's face was pasted on billboards and magazine covers, commercials and advertisements.

While so much attention has been paid to Vonn's injured right shin, Mancuso has had knee and hip injuries and endured a bad back so painful she did not post a top-three finish in a World Cup event in 2008 or 2009, not winning a medal since capturing silver in the 2007 championships in Are, Sweden.

But Mancuso, who won gold in the giant slalom at the 2006 Torino Games, dazzled in the downhill Wednesday, winning silver to Vonn's gold, and her emerging narrative began to take shape. She was the dark horse, a completely talented skier, who, in the words of ski coach Jim Tracy, "only needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together."

"Maybe she slightly has a chip on her shoulder in that she felt like she was due a bit more interest, and you would," Alcott said. "But it's hard being with a star like Lindsey because Lindsey has won everything this year and she deserves everything she's got. She's a gorgeous, amazing role model, so it's hard for Julia without the results to compete with that. But now, they've both earned their spots."

Mancuso had won only four World Cup races, but in Wednesday's downhill, she was in first place until she was unseated by Vonn.

"She came to me and said she thought she was going to win the downhill," Tracy said. "If you're going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk, and she's come here and done that. She's proven she's a game-day athlete."

In the slalom portion of Thursday's super-combined, Mancuso drove hard into the course as she did the day before, nearly crashing coming out of a left gate. She composed herself, remained on the attack and regained her speed. She started the run in third place overall, but finished her slalom in first place, putting her near the gold medal. At the finish line, Mancuso exalted, lying on her back, kicking her feet in the air in jubilation. She knew, no matter what, she had won another medal.

"I really had to charge. I really went for it," Mancuso said. "I got that mistake in the middle and that kind of was making me say 'Oh no, oh no,' and so I just hammered it to the finish line. And seeing that I was in first at the finish line was an amazing moment to know I had a medal."

But Riesch, the best in the world in the discipline, followed Mancuso and beat her by nearly a second with an attacking style that won the gold medal.

Riesch stood on the top step, but in America, the big names, at least for the moment, have to look up at the previously unheralded Mancuso. Only one American at the Games is holding two medals at present, and it's Julia Mancuso, the woman few predicted to even win one.

"It's really such a feeling of accomplishment," Mancuso said. "It's really all about believing. I have so many friends and family out there, and they're all going crazy. They make me want to dance around."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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