American living legend Julia Mancuso made her World Cup debut almost two decades ago, specifically it was Nov. 20, 1999 at Copper Mountain, Colo. It was the day before Serg Lang, the founder of the World Cup died and just over a month before the start of the 21st century. The young Squaw Valley native had only raced a handful of FIS and NorAm competitions until that point and at just 15 years old, she found herself at the base of the World Cup slope wearing bib 62.
"I was surprised to be here, but I'm not nervous," she said that day. "I could have done better, but it was good. I didn't have any goals when I started, really, and I'll have to think about all I've learned."
She did not qualify for a second run that day, but as with most young athletes, it's all about the learning experience their first time around. Over time, Mancuso learned that the key to winning was doing things the 'Super Jules' way. Her nearly twenty years worth of experience and free-spirited attitude helped her accumulate seven World Cup wins and 36 World Cup podiums in 399 World Cup starts across five disciplines. And that doesn't even begin to mention what she's really known for.
For those who don't know how Julia Mancuso became 'Super Jules,' let her enlighten you.
“For any one who doesn’t know the story of being ‘Super Jules,’ it started when I first started winning Nationals...back in 2002….It was a joke. One of the journalists was asking, ‘What is this?’ And I always felt like that was always me. I was always the surprise winner. It was never, ‘Oh, you won. That’s great.’ It was like, ‘Wow, how did you win? It’s a surprise.’ And for me, it was never a surprise, so I finally went along with it and said, ‘Yeah, I wore my lucky underwear today—my ‘Super Jules’ underwear.”
And 'Super Jules' was born and that identity eventually morphed into the Wonder Woman-esque persona she presents now--something she showed off in her final race. Mancuso capped off her career with a heroic run down the Cortina d'Ampezzo World Cup downhill on Jan. 19, 2018. Wearing her Captain Marvel speed suit, a red cape and knee-high Wonder Woman socks, she said goodbye to her time competing in the sport and leaves an inspiring legacy behind.
Mancuso is what they call a "big event skier." She comes out in full force when the lights are brighter, the audience is larger and the stakes are higher. She has the most Olympic Winter Games medals for an American female ski or snowboard athlete, earned at three consecutive Games. That is two more than the winningest female World Cup skier and her long-time rival, Lindsey Vonn. Comparing them is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but at the end of the day, they have both been wildly successful ski racers.
“I’ve been racing with her, skiing with her since we were like nine years old,” Vonn recalled. “We went to ski camps at Erich Sailer. We went to Whistler Cup. We basically climbed the ladder of ski racing together, and it’s really sad to see her go because it’s like a part of me, our career together. She always pushed me. I think the two of us, we pushed each other, and we both reached higher levels of the sport because we had each other and because we pushed each other. You know, we’re both very different people, but I think we have so much respect for each other and you know it’s sad to see her in pain, and I’m happy that now she can get better and start a new chapter of her life.”
Mancuso made her Olympic debut in 2002. The Salt Lake City opening ceremonies was an important experience in her long legacy. Of all the amazing moments she’s had on the world’s biggest stage, the American says that is where she truly felt the Olympic spirit.
"I would still say my favorite Olympic memory and the most impactful Olympic memory was walking into the opening ceremony in Salt Lake City," Mancuso maintained. "I guess I'm fortunate to have a participated in an Olympics on home turf, and it was my biggest dream to just make the Olympics and walking in with the rest of Team USA at home in the stadium in Salt Lake City was just incredible."
Of course, in the years that followed, she did more than "just" make the Olympics. She followed up her 2002 performance with a gold medal in the giant slalom at the 2006 Games in Torino, a silver medal in both the downhill and alpine combined at Vancouver in 2010, and a bronze in super combined at the 2014 Games in Sochi.
"There are two kinds of people in this world," she explains in Spyder video, titled Pure Confidence. "I’m definitely one of those that no matter what the nerves, it makes me become even more focused."
U.S. Ski Team coach, Chris Knight, was in his second year with the national team when Mancuso won in Torino. He was working with the tech team at the time, and he remembers the day very clearly.
“What I remember is how relaxed she was during the break," Knight recalls. "Just chilling out, reading magazines, hanging out, and then second run it really started to dump, and there were some Squaw Valley guys there that she knew really well that were working as volunteers, and they were up in the start with her keeping her relaxed. She laid it down like she never had a chance to think about it.”
Her ability to relax led to five World Championship medals (though she never won gold). However, she did earn five World Junior Championship titles between 2002 and 2004. It's one of the few titles Vonn has not captured in her career. The bottom line is that Mancuso has always been able to perform under pressure.
Beyond Mancuso's ability to relax under high pressure, there was always an underlying confidence that she had what she needed to win.
"You still need confidence, and a result somehow before you go in there," Knight continued. "I've seen very few people who have actually had no results and then all of a sudden pull a medal out at a big event. There's always some sign of form behind before they go in there."
"It comes down to wanting to beat everyone and knowing that you can have the very best run and that you can be the fastest," Mancuso said. "Being the very best on the mountain and like anything in life comes down to being the most confident. It’s not confident as in cockiness. It’s confidence as in self confidence. Pure confidence. Feeling very aware of the moment.”
Ultimately, the decision to retire came from her body. Mancuso had persistent hip problems through most of her career, and even had surgery in 2006 following her Olympic gold medal and was able to come back strong the following season, but the pain returned. Her next surgery in 2015 included fixing cartilage damage, cleaning up bone spurs, and put more anchors in her labrum because there was a slight tear. It was referred to as a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, she was never able to come back to full strength and mobility.
“My body couldn’t stand up to what my mind wanted to do,” she said.
There was a moment for her when it became clear that even though retirement was a tough decision, it was the right decision.
“One of the reasons why I knew it was time for me to retire was because instead of embracing the conditions, which is what I used to love—any time it was icy, bumpy, that was my day. And any time there was any fear in the other racers’ mind, I would go and take advantage of that… This year, I knew that I wasn’t quite myself because I would stand at the start and hope for it to be the flattest, smoothest course, and that was never my thing."
Whatever she does next, Mancuso will surely take the same attitude into it. While she has no specific plans for life after ski racing, the American has one immediate job to tackle: working with NBC at the 2018 PyeongChang Games.
“I’m going to the Olympics," Mancuso said. "That was the plan. If I couldn’t qualify to compete in the Olympics, I really wanted to be a part of the Olympics, so I’m going to work with NBC. Just put together some fun stories. Share the happy and joyful stories behind the scenes.”
Even if she leaves the spotlight after the ski season, her legacy will never be forgotten.
“Julia is an incredible world-class athlete; one to always step up when it counted and big events her hallmark," said U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO Tiger Shaw. "She has inspired so many kids to follow her footsteps; we will be forever in awe of her accomplishments. I wish the best for her as she enters this new chapter of her life, and hope to see a lot of Julia going forward."