Olympics

From waves to slopes, Mancuso up for challenges

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ASPEN, Colo. (AP)

So comfortable on steep mountains, U.S. skier Julia Mancuso can't resist the temptation of big, breaking waves, either. The mere sight of them sends her scurrying for her surfboard when she's back on the beaches in Hawaii, following a long winter of cruising down the slopes. Trouble is, Mancuso has a tendency to try to tackle waves above her level of ability. She doesn't have the same problem on snow, where her considerable skills will be on display in the giant slalom Saturday during the first World Cup stop in North America this season. While Lindsey Vonn will be the center of attention, Mancuso could very well emerge as a darling of the Vancouver Olympics. Don't forget: Mancuso, not Vonn, won a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games, taking the title in the giant slalom. The U.S. teammates have a robust rivalry, pushing each other in training and hoping it carries over into competitions. "It's always what they say: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer," Mancuso said, laughing. "It's nice to have that one person you can always look up to and be like, 'They're faster,' and you know they're fast. And if they're beating you in training, or if you're beating them in training, you know where you are. "It pushes the bar up higher, and you strive yourself to be better." Mancuso insists there's no added pressure entering Vancouver as a defending champion, even if she's coming off a difficult season. Mancuso had nagging back issues that hampered her throughout 2008-09 and caused her to miss out on earning at least one World Cup podium finish for the first time since 2006. "Water under the bridge," U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy said. "I expect a lot better season than she had last year for sure. I think there's no reason in the world she can't be back to that same level that she was a few years ago." Mancuso raced earlier this season in Soelden, Austria, but missed a gate in her second run of the giant slalom. No big concern, just a slip, and no reason to read anything into it. "It was a good platform and I watched my video and I think all the pieces are coming together," Mancuso said. Winning gold taught her one valuable lesson - don't let doubt creep in. "I think it's more that I set my goals as anything's possible, and knowing that since I've done it before I can do it again," she said. "Just to believe in myself." She always has. As a kid, Mancuso imagined her picture being plastered on a poster, so one day she got creative and made it happen. Mancuso took down a poster of Olympic downhill champion Tommy Moe, turned it over and drew a self-portrait in black marker. Across the top she added a line about her being a four-time Olympic gold medalist. One down, three to go. In the dense fog and driving snow of Sestriere, Italy, Mancuso turned in a magical moment, finishing 0.67 seconds ahead of Tanja Poutiainen of Finland. "I'm really excited to go into Vancouver with already having a gold medal," Mancuso said. "It just makes it that much sweeter to win some more." After a wave of media exposure, her life has quieted down - as much as it can. These days, the member of the Squaw Valley Ski Team surfs her favorite spots on Maui in relative privacy and can go pretty much wherever she wants without being noticed. Well, besides the grocery store. "I'm in the check-out line and this guy's like, 'Julia, great job!"' she recounted. "I'm like, 'Thanks."' It's different in Europe, where Mancuso is constantly recognized in the tiny ski villages. "You go to the salon to get your eyelashes dyed, go to the restaurant to eat, and everyone's listening and pointing," Mancuso said. "Sometimes, it's nice to get a little bit of privacy. But at the same time that's what makes it great. You have to remember the fans are why we're here. It's fun to support that and give back." Between skiing and surfing, she's also found time to showcase her creativity again - by launching her own underwear line. That's right, underwear. "I've always wanted to be a clothing designer," said Mancuso, who plans on naming her new line of undergarments Kiss My Tiara. "The one thing I know I can design that most skiers don't design or have is awesome underwear." Mancuso is scheduled to make a cameo appearance on the NBC show "The Biggest Loser," putting the contestants through a workout. Other than that, she's focusing on skiing and attempting to claim another gold medal. "I have goals for myself after ski racing," Mancuso said. "It will be fun to explore what the future has for me."

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