ROSA KHUTOR, Russia — Julia Mancuso’s Olympic super combined bronze medal will go nicely with her two silvers and one gold. Coming into the Games in Sochi, the 29-year-old had already won more Olympic alpine medals than any other American woman — and with the fastest downhill run earlier in the day, there could be even more to come.
Among a field that included downhill powerhouses such as Lara Gut, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Anna Fenninger and Tina Maze, Mancuso was fastest by nearly a half-second — on the same course they’ll be racing in the downhill medal event Wednesday.
Mancuso, who hasn’t raced slalom this season, was able to seal her fourth Olympic medal with a solid performance in the afternoon event. She skied a respectable slalom run in warm, somewhat choppy conditions, but it wasn’t quite enough to hold off all-rounders Maria Hoefl-Riesch and Nicole Hosp, who took gold and silver, respectively.
For Hoefl-Riesch, it’s her second Olympic gold in the combined (third gold total). With World Cup podium results in both downhill and slalom this season, the German was the clear favorite coming into the medal event. She had just more than a second to make up on Mancuso after the downhill, which proved easy enough with clean, solid skiing from top to bottom in the afternoon.
“The expectations were really high today. I was one of the top favorites — or actually the top favorite. Especially, then, it’s not so easy to do things right,” said Hoefl-Riesch. “I was having some problems on the downhill the last days of training. This morning was much better, but still not really good, so I saw the slalom hill and I said, OK, this is going to be a really big challenge second run because it was really steep. Because of the warm temperature, it looked like the snow could be a problem, but it held up pretty good. It was a little bit rough and bumpy, but for the warm weather, it was still good.”
Nicole Hosp, another talented all-around skier, finished the downhill in fifth, and despite a mistake or two in the slalom, charged through to the finish to take her second career Olympic medal — the other, in slalom, was also a silver.
Women’s head coach Alex Hoedlmoser offered some insight into the conditions on the slalom course: “The whole hill was injected top to bottom, so it was a slick surface. Then we had those warm temperatures (it changed) … the snow conditions, actually, being so warm it would make it little bit easier, but then they put in some chemicals or salt and so the surface was hard again. If you put in those chemicals the snow smears a little bit. So it’s a different feeling under the foot. But I have to say it was holding up pretty well, actually, all the way to when (Mancuso) started and that really wasn’t a problem. So the conditions were actually really good and very fair.”
To say Mancuso was fired up after her downhill run is an understatement. She crushed the top part of the run, but lost the line for a bit, which resulted in a brief deficit. She was able to regain the lead by the third split and cruise through to the finish. Prior to Mancuso, the downhill was a close race between Lara Gut, Tina Maze and Anna Fenninger, who finished second, third and fourth, respectively.
“I was just full of energy when I kicked out of the start, and the snow felt a little bit softer, so it was easier to really drive in to my ski,” said Mancuso. “Yeah, having a day off, I felt really energized today. First race of the Olympics — I was excited and just really focused on being aerodynamic and going for it.”
The second run was a flip-27, since three women — Chemmy Alcott, Daniela Merighetti and Elena Fanchini — did not start the slalom, choosing instead to utilize the downhill simply as a training run. The weather was sunny and warm, spring-like, which led to softer snow conditions on both courses, something Mancuso says she likes.
“(In the slalom start), I was just thinking, stay calm and use my heart, and I skied my heart out,” said Mancuso. “That was really tough, it was a really, really difficult slalom run, so give it my best shot. It sure didn’t feel good. I definitely had moments in my mind where I was thinking, ‘This is not going to be good enough.’ But keep fighting, and I knew where to let it run on that last pitch and, surprise, looked up and got a medal.
“Today I definitely felt that it was a little too small of a margin against really good slalom skiers,” added Mancuso. “I knew that it was possible. Definitely if the hill was easier I’d be thinking I’m going for gold. That [run] was tough and I really just wanted to make it down with a clean run and I really don’t know if I could do any better. I could definitely risk more, but without having the slalom mileage it’s really tough to snap off turns and pick up speed. It’s more just survive and get to the finish.”
As for the other Americans, it was mostly about the downhill race. Stacey Cook, running 30th, failed to finish.
“Well I definitely got a tough draw starting 30th, it’s the latest possible draw I could have gotten,” said Cook. “It was pretty warm snow and I don’t think I really adapted to it that well. It slides under your skis and I was pushing hard and not getting a lot of response back. I made a mistake in the middle and it was a bad mistake, one that I’d probably try to pull out of if it was a downhill race.”
On Julia, Cook said she was not shocked with her result.
“I didn’t see her run at all, I was obviously in the start getting ready. I really didn’t hear too much excitement up there, so when I got down I was surprised to see that,” said Cook. “But Julia does this at the Olympics. You can’t count her out. … But she’s so exciting to watch to see … what kind of miracle she can pull off.”
Leanne Smith finished 20th in the downhill run but did not finish the slalom after missing a gate halfway through the run. She, too, was unsurprised by Mancuso’s performance but continues to be frustrated by her own skiing. The Granite Stater will not have an opportunity to showcase her downhill at the Olympics this week after the U.S. Ski Team opted instead for Jackie Wiles in the fourth starting spot.
“It’s been a struggle for me recently in the downhill discipline,” said Smith. “I’m just not where I want to be. And every day I go out there and give it my best effort and try to turn it around. And it hasn’t quite happened yet. But such is life. … There’s really no reason to lose sleep over it, to beat myself up about it, because I will be back at some point, with a vengeance, in the downhill, I can guarantee that.”
Laurenne Ross, who had a decent super combined result earlier this season in Altenmarkt, 20th, took a spill when her outside ski released on a chattery right-footer that gave many of the ladies trouble. Her DNF begs the question: What are the implications for Wednesday’s downhill?
“I’m totally fine. Not sore. I feel like I pulled my groin and maybe my neck a little,” said Ross. “But it wasn’t scary, you know, it’s just one of those falls where you’re just on the ground, and you know you’re safe because there are fences around. And that’s nice. So, (I will) get some rest and get ready for the next race.”
Canadian Marie-Michele Gagnon took a rough tumble in the slalom run, doing a split and flying face-first down the hill. She later skied off with her arm in a sling and was taken by ambulance to a clinic where she was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder and a bruised left quad. The Canadian ski team reported that Gagnon’s status is day-to-day, but she optimistically posted to social media, “Should be ready to go for the tech events!”
Julia Mancuso and Maria Hoefl-Riesch discuss their medals.
RESULTS — Olympic Combined
|Rank||Bib||FIS Code||Name||Year||Nation||Run 1||Run 2||Total Time||Diff.||FIS Points|
|20||24||35089||SIMARI BIRKNER Macarena||1984||ARG||1:48.87||55.06||2:43.93||+9.31||64.43|
|22||39||465098||CAILL Ania Monica||1995||ROU||1:51.91||1:02.04||2:53.95||+19.33||133.77|
|Did not start 2nd run|
|Did not finish 2nd run|
|7||425880||SEJERSTED Lotte Smiseth||1991||NOR|
|Did not finish 1st run|