February 4, 2006
OFTERSCHWANG, Germany (AP by Roy Kammerer) - Ask Julia Mancuso why she's suddenly a threat to win a medal at the Olympics and she has a simple answer: It's the boots, stupid.
Mancuso - and her boots - did just fine in Saturday's World Cup giant slalom. The American was just 0.09 behind co-winners Maria Jose Rienda of Spain and Anja Paerson of Sweden, the two gold-medal favorites for the event at the Turin Games.
In December, Mancuso forgot her favorite ski boots in a hotel in Canada after a fourth-place finish in the season's opening downhill. The boots traveled to Aspen, Colo., and France before she got them back last month at Maribor, Slovenia, following some shaky performances.
In her last five races, she has two seconds and a third _ the first time the 21-year-old skier cracked the top three in the World Cup.
"I really think it's the boots," Mancuso said. "It's really physical. I didn't feel comfortable at all. I couldn't get anything to work."
Mancuso has bought a motor home to live in on the tour, like Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves. After Sunday's race, she and sister Alice will meander south to Turin for the Olympics.
"We'll stop some places, do some free skiing," Mancuso said. "Hopefully we will arrive on time."
Rienda and Paerson covered the icy course over two runs in 2 minutes, 22.18 seconds, with Mancuso right behind.
Mancuso came out of nowhere at last year's world championships to grab bronzes in the giant slalom and super-G. At the games, which start Friday, she will take aim at medals in downhill, giant slalom, super-G and the combined. She also may enter the slalom, depending on her result in a race Sunday, the last before the Olympics.
"I'm going there to win," Mancuso said, referring to the Olympics. "I've been close lately. I'm just going to take those hundredths and at the finish line, hopefully they will be on my side."
Rienda, who also won Friday's giant slalom, broke her country's record for World Cup wins and became the favorite for Turin - at least in the eyes of Paerson, the giant slalom world champion.
"She won again today. OK, I won, too, but I think she is the favorite at the Olympics," Paerson said.
Rienda won in style as first Mancuso, then Paerson pressured her by turning in fast second runs. Mancuso was more than a half-second ahead of fourth-place Genevieve Simard of Canada.
Rienda trailed Paerson by 0.10 heading into the final slope, then accelerated as a roar went up from 10,000 spectators. She finished dead even with the Swede.
"I didn't know what was happening. When I crossed the finish line, everybody was yelling - I didn't believe it at the moment," Rienda said.
The Spaniard's success has caused a stir at home, where stars in winter sports are scarce. Her fifth World Cup win broke the record for a Spanish woman, one more than Blanca Fernandez Ochoa collected from 1985-92.
"All these people call me - I don't know, maybe 52 today," Rienda said.
Mancuso was second in the downhill and super-G last week at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, along with a fifth in the giant slalom. She was 10th in Friday's race, blaming the result on the switch from soft to icy snow.
"I wasn't really prepared for how slick and hard it was. I made adjustments today," Mancuso said. "I'm really excited - my skiing's good. I just want to stay healthy for the Olympics."
Janica Kostelic, the triple gold medal winner from the Salt Lake City Olympics, failed to qualify for the second run after finishing 3.64 behind Rienda. The Croat, who was 14th Friday, injured her hand during her run.
Paerson, who leads the giant slalom standings and is close behind Kostelic in the overall race, picked up the 32nd World Cup win of her career and sixth this season.
"My goal is to go there and have fun," said Paerson, who has never done better than a giant slalom Olympic silver. "I want to be Olympic champion."