By Chris Dufresne Los Angeles Times
SOCHI, Russia — Julia Mancuso knows that trying to catch Lindsey Vonn in World Cup victories is futile, like a baseball pitcher saying he wants to catch Cy Young.
Mancuso and Vonn both are 29 and with Vonn leading by the World Cup score of 59-7, that ballgame is over.
Mancuso has been left to carve out a different legacy, but it’s the one America, and NBC, will probably remember longer.
Mancuso’s ski racing legacy will be the Olympics.
She made that clear Monday at Rosa Khutor when she out-of-nowhere earned a bronze medal in the women’s first event — the super combined.
It enabled Mancuso to double up on Vonn, four to two, in Olympic hardware, with her best races yet to come.
She has been tripping over herself all year on the World Cup circuit, but apparently all you have to do to shake a slump is point Mancuso to an Olympic start gate.
Earning bronze in the super combined required Mancuso to complete a downhill and slalom in the same day.
The downhill was no problem, as Mancuso won the morning run by nearly half a second.
Completing the slalom, though, for her is like getting a drunk to walk a straight line.
Mancuso had not finished a World Cup slalom race since 2012 and had not completed one in a combined in nearly a year.
But this was the Olympics, so of course she did it Monday.
She built up enough of a cushion in downhill that she was able to medal with only the 13th-fastest slalom time.
After the downhill, Slovenian superstar Tina Maze joked with Mancuso in the mixed zone.
“Get ready for some slalom,” Maze said.
Mancuso’s response: “Game on.”
Maze finished fourth in the super-combined.
Mancuso did not have enough juice to overcome Germany’s five-tool star, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who defended her Olympic combined gold with a total time of 2 minutes 34.62 seconds.
Hoefl-Riesch trailed Mancuso by 1.04 seconds after the downhill but easily made up the time in the gates. The reason was simple: Hoefl-Riesch is also the defending Olympic slalom champion.
Mancuso also could not overcome the slalom skills of Austria’s Nicole Hosp, who won silver with a total time of 2:35.02, ahead of Mancuso’s 2:35.15
Mancuso was able to bronco-ride a very tricky and slippery slalom slope, though, to further distance her from all other American women in Olympic Alpine lore.
She is the first American Alpine skier to win medals in three different Olympics and is only one medal from tying teammate Bode Miller for the all-time American lead.
Something happens to Mancuso when the Olympic lights go on.
“She really sucks up the energy going into the Games,” U.S. women’s coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. “It fills her up with energy.”
Bill Marolt, outgoing chief executive of the United States Ski Association, stood in stunned amazement in the finish corral.
“She’s a game changer,” he said of Mancuso. “She’s a gamer.”
It would be disingenuous not to note that Mancuso has benefited from Vonn’s Olympic travails.
In 2006, Vonn crashed in training just before the start of the Turin Games and had to be airlifted to a hospital. She climbed out of bed to race but was too battered to seriously contend.
Vonn returned to win gold and bronze in Vancouver, but is missing the Sochi Games while recovering from her second major knee surgery in a year.
Vonn’s misfortunes have helped Mancuso earn an Olympic medal of every color, with an extra silver on the side.
Mancuso said she admires Vonn’s sustained World Cup excellence and her “breaking records left and right.”
Mancuso added: “To have something I can break records in at the same time is also fun and exciting for me. In our own ways we have such strengths, and it’s cool to be a part of.”
Mancuso’s medal train might keep on rolling. Her win in the downhill half of the combined makes her an immediate favorite in Wednesday’s women’s downhill. Mancuso will also have opportunities in super-G and giant slalom, in which she won gold at Turin.
It’s amazing how, every four years, the karma turns in Mancuso’s favor.
“The Olympics is my redemption,” she said.
The warm weather in Sochi turned the Rosa Khutor course into the kind of spring-condition tracks Mancuso grew up on in Squaw Valley.
Mancuso wore a gold scarf on Monday’s medal run and don’t be surprised if she gets a medal matching that color.
“See it works!” she said of calling on her positive Olympic vibes. “Believing in yourself really works. I got a medal today.”
It wasn’t her first — and may not be her last.