Winter Games
Summer Games
 
                         === Mancuso saves the day ===
 
                       By Jim Gillis, TSN Managing Editor
 
 Sestriere,  Italy  (Sports Network)  - It  started with a  thud and ended with
 bang.
 
 That was the Olympic story of the American women's alpine team in a nutshell.
 
 The  thud was  Lindsey Kildow's  nasty  spill during  a training  run for  the
 downhill on the first Monday of the Games. It appeared to be all downhill from
 there as not one medal came from this highly-regarded team of women racers.
 
 Until  Friday, that is, and bang! There was Julia Mancuso, whose stirring runs
 through  the  falling snow on the  Sises course in Sestriere produced the lone
 American  women's  alpine medal of  the 2006  Games with a somewhat unexpected
 gold in the giant slalom.
 
 "I  can't  believe it," Mancuso exclaimed  after her winning run. "Of course I
 was  always dreaming of [winning a gold medal], but never believed it could be
 true."
 
 It  may  have helped that  defending Olympic  champion Janica Kostelic did not
 race  Friday because of a nagging illness that had bothered her throughout the
 Olympics,  but there was still plenty of competition and conditions that would
 have made Chilly Willy think twice about coming out of his igloo.
 
 But  Mancuso had  no problems  with it,  although she  did forget  her Olympic
 credential in the morning.
 
 She  started the  first run ninth out  of the gate and right away bettered the
 time put up by three-time Torino medal winner Anja Paerson of Sweden. The time
 of  one minute, .89  seconds was just 18/100ths of a second better, but it was
 enough to take the lead heading to the afternoon's second run.
 
 "After  the  first run I was  really excited to  be in the lead," Mancuso said
 later.  "Going  on the  second run  I was not  aware that  the best girls were
 slower.  Anja was only  18/100ths behind me. I knew I had to really put down a
 run. I played it safe and took some risks where I could."
 
 The  snowy conditions made the afternoon runs look treacherous and, judging by
 the early results, they were.
 
 It wasn't Paerson, but another Swede who set the standard for the afternoon.
 
 Anna  Ottosson,  who was just 13th  after the opening run, attacked the course
 and  put together  an incredible run of  1:08.29. None of the 17 racers before
 her  and  neither of  the nine after  were able to  approach breaking the 1:09
 mark.
 
 Finland's  Tanja Poutiainen did and knocked Ottosson from the top spot. It was
 then  Paerson's  turn,  and she  had  no  answer.  The  gold medal  winner  in
 Wednesday's  slalom posted only the 14th-best time of the second run and was a
 non-factor.
 
 It was then up to Mancuso.
 
 Teammate  Sarah Schelper  did not finish a  few runs earlier, but it was of no
 concern to Mancuso, who recalled her home course in Squaw Valley, California.
 
 "It felt like home, so I dug into my roots and trusted myself," Mancuso said.
 
 Weaving  her way  through the snow and  the gates, she was nearly perfect. Not
 only  did  she finish cleanly,  but her  time of 1:08.30  was only 1/10th of a
 second slower than Ottosson's top afternoon run.
 
 "I just felt I couldn't make any mistakes in the second run because there were
 so  many  big turns on  the bottom," Mancuso  continued. "I wasn't thinking of
 gold,  I was  thinking of  the podium.  I was  excited and  nervous. It  was a
 difficult second run."
 
 Maybe so, but it was just what the U.S. women's ski team needed heading out of
 Torino.
 
 It  ended  a long Olympic  drought for  this group, which  was on the verge of
 being  kept off  the medal  podium for  the second  straight Olympics.  Picabo
 Street's  gold in the  super-G at the 1998 Nagano Games was the last medal for
 the American women before Friday.
 
 "Our  team  was disappointed after the  speed races, but everyone was proud of
 how  we performed," Mancuso stated. "Our skis were not running and Lindsey had
 that  crash. We  don't have any regrets.  We did our best that's what it's all
 about."
 
 A medal, though, definitely helps.
 
 The  best finish before Friday for a U.S. woman alpine racer in the 2006 Games
 was seventh -- by Kildow in the super-G and by Mancuso in the downhill.
 
 Mancuso  was,  by far,  the most consistent  of the bunch.  In addition to her
 downhill performance, she finished ninth in the combined event and 11th in the
 super-G.
 
 "I'm  really excited,"  Mancuso  said  at a  press  conference afterward.  "My
 parents  and grandparents  were all here to  watch and this was a great way to
 end the Olympics."
 
 With a bang, and not a thud.
 
 
 02/24 11:58:11 ET