A child is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer can be fleeting, subject to the changing whims of youthful dreams. Yet once in a while childhood ambition evolves into what someone does become, not due to a lucky break, but the result of a determined will that knows no bounds.
Olympic skier and World Cup medalist Julia Mancuso epitomizes that fairytale, embodied in the spirit of a woman who understood as a little girl that one day, yes, she would go for the gold. And that is who Mancuso is: a vivid, vibrant dream turned reality, racing through life and challenging herself every step of the way to do more, to be more, to have it all.
At 30 years of age, Mancuso has won more medals than any other Olympic female alpine ski racer. Her remarkable wins include a gold, two silver and one bronze medal in the Olympics, and two silver and three bronze in the World Cup Championships. Yet unlike her counterparts in the racing world, “Super Jules” Mancuso today remains a bit aloof from the spotlight, preferring to live life on her terms, and to have a blast in the process.
Growing up in California, Mancuso frequented the slopes of Squaw Valley, and at a very young age was chasing her older sister down the hill determined to one day gain the lead. Her racing career took off as soon as she turned 15, the age she had to be to qualify for a spot on the World Cup team. Her first race in 2003 was in St. Moritz, where she was one of the youngest racers to compete. Her first podium appearance came just two years later in 2005, when she took two bronze medals in the Super-G and Giant Slalom. In 2006 she competed in the Olympics in Torino, Italy, experiencing equipment malfunctions that would have discouraged a less-competitive spirit. But not Mancuso, who pulled out all the stops and skied to Olympic Gold in the Giant Slalom, marking her first career win in the big event.
Twenty-one years old, and ah, the memory. “It was foggy and snowy, which gave me an edge. As a kid I trained and skied in all conditions, which taught me to be more precise in my focus. So even though it was foggy and visibility was tough, I knew the snow was perfect and I let that guide me. And once I accomplished that, I knew it was just going to keep getting better,” she reflects with a smile. The irony, she reflects, is that her biggest win came so early in her career. “It was like my goals shifted backward. It was my childhood dream to win Olympic Gold, and that happened first! And that taught me that it’s so much easier to be on the podium and in the Top 5 than to get the big win!”
This season marks her seventh World Cup Championship tour. For skiers of Mancuso’s caliber, it’s not enough to make the team. With just four racers per event competing from each country, the only guaranteed spot on the team goes to the reigning world champ, just as in the Olympics. That means each year is a new beginning, a fresh start or, as in Mancuso’s case, a continued dedication to the sport that long ago stole her heart.
“People don’t understand the World Cup Tour,” Mancuso begins. “We race every weekend once it starts. It’s different than other sports because your ranking is based on your starting position, and every single race counts toward your overall standing and where you start on the course.”
The tour extends several months from Thanksgiving though mid-March, exacting long days of practice, workouts and training. The tour kicks off each year in Colorado because of the good early snowfall; the women’s first official race is usually held in Aspen; the men’s in Beaver Creek. After the North American leg it’s off to Europe, where the team travels and competes for the remainder of the season. The term “vacation” is never a consideration for these athletes; no break for Christmas, and a big race on December 28th. But for Mancuso the long hours and countless races are part of the fun.
The fact that Colorado figures so strongly in her racing career is a huge bonus for Mancuso. Her mother and stepfather live in Denver, and are themselves avid skiers. Andrea Mancuso Webber, Julia’s mother, is a successful realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty in Beaver Creek, as well as one of her daughter’s staunchest supporters.
“This really is my second home,” Mancuso says. “I get to spend a month here when I’m training, and it’s so fun to see my family. Colorado holds such great memories from my childhood and I love being able to spend every Thanksgiving here. And Aspen is a particular favorite. There’s nothing like a great powder day there, and the shopping is pretty great as well!”
We caught up with Mancuso in Copper Mountain, where she was training for her first event in Aspen. Not surprisingly she was relaxed and content, no sign of the “take life too seriously” attitude that could easily dominate the character of someone less confident. Her focus on the sport is evident; her desire to live life to its fullest equally so. “Skiing does not define me,” she says with a shrug. “It’s what I do and what I love. But it’s not who I am, because there’s so much more.”
hailed as one of the sport’s top all-around skiers, Mancuso these days still devotes countless hours to making sure she is at the top of her game in every event. “Each event is so different and each race is unique so it’s a bit more challenging,” she says. “The equipment now is so technical that not everything translates to every different type of competition.” For a skier like Mancuso, who is comfortable “doing it all,” that means she really never does get a break, and during the season, she’s training non-stop.
Still, she acknowledges, there’s nothing she’d rather be doing. “This is the dream tour — St. Moritz, Cortina, Val d’Isere, Lenzerheide — how can I not love being able to travel to all the places I dreamed about as a kid?” she exclaims.
Growing up in Squaw Valley, Mancuso says she was the quiet middle child. She adored her older sister, and wanted to be just like her, which fueled a passion to work hard, train hard, and inspired a keen sense of adventure. She also was influenced by a friend whose father was on the U.S. Ski Team. “The two of us used to go watch his races and it gave me a thrill to learn what it was to compete,” she recalls. “I met a lot of the racers, and even though I didn’t fully understand what it meant, it inspired me to work harder, go faster. When I was 13 I finally beat my older sister, and that was the best feeling in the world!”
Those days are far behind, but the memories remain vivid for the part they played in shaping the racer who looks at life as if there were a new adventure around every turn. “I never knew this would be a career, and even though I hoped this was something I could do, I never realized it would take me this far!”
A racer’s success is measured in speed, but for Mancuso it’s just one facet of the sport that dictates who goes home a winner. “I have a lot of focus when I’m racing. On race day you don’t just go out of the starting gate and ski your fastest. You have to memorize the course. You don’t get to run the course on that actual race day, but you have to understand it well and focus on what is the best way to run it. In training runs you can check out the course, but on the actual day you need to know the safest way down while giving 100 percent.
“I love being part of the tour, but it’s different from other team sports,” she continues. “It’s really an individual sport because you’re racing against the clock and competing against yourself. But it’s different when you’re just starting out. The older you get, the wiser, and you can relax knowing there’s always another race. When things don’t go so well, it’s really about hundredths of a second. And that means there’s always another time to do better. But when you’re on the wrong side of the hundredth of a second, it happens in the blink of an eye.”
In the world of ski racing, the tiniest miscalculation can cost the big finish. Only those athletes with nerves of steel are able to rise above the pressure and perform superbly in all conditions and challenges. Yet her ability to accept loss, to acknowledge that maybe today just was not her day, may well be what separates Mancuso from her peers … high-profile teammates such as Lindsey Vonn or Mikaela Shiffrin. “Lindsey is one of the sport’s most winningest females, and truly in in the legend category,” Mancuso says. “She lives, eats and breathes the sport. But there’s a difference here. I love my sport for what it is and how it enriches my life, but it does not define me.”
“The way I look at it, my career is about enjoying my journey and living the dream. For me a successful day on the mountain is about doing my best. You’re out there with 60 girls who are all working very hard to achieve their dream. There’s always someone having a worse day than you, so it’s not fair to you or to anyone to judge your life based on a day,” she says.
It could be her willingness to concede victory to another day which has created an impression that somehow she just doesn’t care. “People think I don’t work hard, but I just work differently. I’m not letting anyone down when I come in 10th. There are so many girls out there all trying their best, and it’s such an inspiration. Everyone wants to do their best every time, but some are going to do it better than others on any given day.”
As a champion veteran of the racing circuit, Mancuso seems to have a perspective that younger competitors could not possibly possess. In fact, by this point in a racer’s career many have already stowed their racing gear, moving toward a more sedate lifestyle. But for Mancuso, the thrill continues, and as long as she remains injury-free, she has Olympics on her mind. She parlays that enthusiasm as a mentor to her younger teammates, who often appear crushed following a bad run.
“I always tell the girls to have fun, which I think is a strength of mine. We need to take advantage of the good days, and when you’re feeling particularly awesome, take that extra run. But if you’re not having a good day and not feeling it, don’t push it. Because at the end of the day, happy girls ski fast!”
As a 15-year World Cup veteran, Mancuso devotes hours to staying in peak physical condition. “For me it’s so much less about strength than it is about conditioning,” she explains. A devotee of working out, this super athlete spends a lot of time doing neurokinetic pilates, an exercise regimen that simulates ski positions. But for this self-proclaimed daredevil, working out is just half the fun.
For the past seven years she has spent summers in Maui, a place she has loved since a child. “I remember being mad when I was little because I wanted to ski at Christmas, but our family did the typical snow bum migration in Hawaii. But then I started skiing a lot and Hawaii was my haven. It’s such a healthy, active lifestyle, and I get to do everything I love.
Everything? Yes, she loves it all: mountain biking, road biking, paddleboarding, surfing, free diving, cliff jumping. “I’m a daredevil at heart and that will never change!”
If you’re lucky enough to visit Mancuso in Maui, be prepared for adventure. “I love to bring guests on the Cliff Jump Test. We hike up a lava tube and take a 45-foot-jump off a cliff. My mother has done it twice! A lot of people mistake adrenaline for confidence, but I for one am an adrenaline junkie! I guess I just love doing things that would be scary to most people.”
So she’s won the Gold, she’s one of the most respected racers in the world and she’s brimming with confidence. What’s next for Super Jules? “I want to win the Super-G title. But when I look at the dreams I had as a kid, it makes me smile to know I’ve accomplished them all. It has been enlightening and I just am committed to staying true to my passion for the sport I so love,” she says.”
She tilts her head back and smiles.
“And now everything I accomplish is just icing on the cake!”