Sochi Suits America’s Top Female Skier

With Lindsey Vonn sidelined, Julia Mancuso is primed to succeed in the Olympic Games. But first she’s got to worry about a pair of boots

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Julia Mancuso of Team USA at a press conference ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor athletes village on Feb. 6, 2014 in Sochi.

It’s the damn boots. Any amateur skier who has ever so much as snowplowed down the bunny hill knows that ill-fitting boots can make skiing miserable—no matter how good you are. Consider Julia Mancuso. A 10- year professional who grew up on skis at Squaw Valley, California, Mancuso owns more big-event medals that any other American woman. That’s right, any American woman. Her medal haul includes three Olympic medals and five World Championship medals. She won silver in the downhill and super combined at Vancouver, and a gold in the giant slalom at Torino.

Mancuso is a skier with extraordinary versatility, but earlier this season on the World Cup circuit, she struggled. “My season started slower than I’d hoped,” she says. “It was actually kind of a shock to me.” The only thing that had changed in her equipment package was the boots. Which got her to thinking, and got her to tinkering, which isn’t really a good thing when you are skiing at 60 miles an hour. “Confidence is 99% mental,” she says. “And you can gain mental confidence by feeling good on your equipment.”

She fussed around for awhile until finally switching back to her old boots—which are a little big for her. She then spent more than a few hours looking for some stiff padding, “so I’m not feeling super floppy in them.” So here’s a world class skier, with access to world class equipment and ski techs, doing what the rest of us do to try to make our boots feel a little more comfortable. Whatever works.

Mancuso always seems to feel comfortable at big races and is the veteran on a team lacking not only Lindsey Vonn but also Alice McKennis, who had already one World Cup downhill win before breaking her leg in a crash. If there is more pressure on Mancuso, it will be hard to detect. Says one U.S. Ski Team official: “Julia? We don’t worry about her at all. She shows up when it counts.”

At Sochi, Mancuso will again be a four-event threat who will ski the downhill, super G, super combined and giant slalom—in other words, from extremely fast to extremely technical skiing. Very few skiers can excel in all those events. She puts her big-race cool down to both experience and attitude. “It’s kind of a little bit of everything,” she says. “Having the big event experience is knowing that anything can happen and you can never count yourself out.” She learned this while winning her first World Cup medal when, after what she thought was a so-so performance. Then the next 15 skiers messed up. “Strange things happen,” she says. “You just have to go for it and not be scared: Fear is not an option.”

The setup at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center suits her style. For the downhill, Rosa Khutor isn’t a drag strip. It has variable terrain that will be a test of technique as much as it is flat out speed. “It’s one of those places where good skiing will pay off,” Mancuso says. “Sometimes in ski racing you just have to be super ballsy and not care and go straight and fast. Drag races aren’t my best or my strongest suite. Sochi suits me. It has a lot of elements that are good for my skiing.”

And if your boots aren’t bothering you, everything else is easy.