KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Julia Mancuso's remarkable knack for rising to the occasion in big events served her well again Monday when she claimed a bronze medal in super-combined, joining figure skater Beatrix Loughran, speedskater Bonnie Blair and short-track skater Apolo Ohno as the only Americans to win medals in three Winter Olympics.
It was Mancuso's fourth Olympic medal. No other American woman has more than two in alpine.
Mancuso had the fastest downhill leg in the morning and skied well enough in the afternoon slalom to stay in the medals despite not having raced slalom all season. Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany won the gold medal, and Nicole Hosp of Austria claimed silver.
"I was just thinking, 'Stay calm and ski with my heart,' and I skied my heart out," Mancuso said. "That was really tough. It was a really, really difficult slalom run. I knew I just had to give my best shot, and 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.' I knew where to let it run on that last pitch and, surprise, looked up and got a medal."
Mancuso had not finished better than seventh in any World Cup race this season, but her downhill run was breathtaking to watch, and her slalom was surprisingly good for a racer with so little slalom mileage. She has trained a little slalom this season, but not much.
"I was just kind of amazed," Mancuso said. "It's been a really tough season for me, and I've always had that real belief that I can do it. Putting out these dreams and beliefs that I can come in here and have a medal, and everyone being a little skeptical, and just knowing in my heart that I can do it, was kind of like crossing the finish line and saying, 'See? It works. Believing in yourself really works. I got a medal today.' "
Mancuso had a lead of 0.47 of a second after the downhill. Hoefl-Riesch was 1.04 seconds behind her and Hosp 1.27 seconds. Mancuso approached her slalom run tactically, determined to stay in the medals rather than take risks going for the gold that might have backfired. Her slalom run was only 13th fastest, but her combined time for the two runs was only 0.53 behind Hoefl-Riesch, a three-time Olympic champion.
"I definitely thought it was a little too small of a margin (over) really good slalom skiers," Mancuso said. "I knew it was possible. Definitely if the hill was easier, I would be thinking I would be going for gold. I really just wanted to make it down with a clean run. I 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 try to make up speed. It's more survive and get to the finish."
After the punch in the gut the U.S. Ski Team received Sunday when Bode Miller finished eighth in the men's downhill, Mancuso's result was a huge boost.
"It really is a happy occasion," said U.S. Ski Team chief executive Bill Marolt. "She has the ability to focus, she has the ability at the moment, she brings herself to her best possible level of preparation and puts it all out there. You think about what she did today to get this medal, she's a gamer."
Mancuso previously won a gold medal in giant slalom at the 2006 Olympics and two silver medals at the 2010 Olympics, in super-combined and downhill.
"She really sucks up the energy, going into those Games," said head coach Alex Hoedlmoser. "She gets super excited, and it fills her up with energy. She goes to the opening ceremony and talks to the other girls, like, 'You guys gotta go, because this is the greatest thing, it's going to amp you up.' She's just a true champion who knows how to perform in big events."