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Mancuso always seems to shine on biggest stages

Julia Mancuso is enjoying a life free from the back problems that hindered her skiing career. (Associated Press)
Julia Mancuso is enjoying a life free from the back problems that hindered her skiing career. (Associated Press)

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – Julia Mancuso is in a healthy place these days, a “good place” as she refers to it.

Her back no longer constantly aches. Her bond with her American teammates has never been stronger. And her heart isn’t broken, despite a recent split from boyfriend and fellow skier Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.

As for her skiing, well, that’s quickly rounding into form. Always does with a big event like the Sochi Games on the horizon.

The bigger the stakes, the better Mancuso seems to perform.

With three Olympic medals on her resume, along with five more of the world championship variety, the skier who splits her time between Squaw Valley, Calif., and Maui has the most major championship hardware of any American woman, including Lindsey Vonn.

“I just excel at skiing new courses,” said Mancuso, who will compete in the season-opening World Cup downhill today on the new Beaver Creek course. “If it’s somewhere new and everyone is not quite used to it – and if you add the pressure of the Olympics or a world championships – it for some reason takes the pressure off and makes it more about skiing.”

Mancuso doesn’t mean to get all mushy or anything, but she prefers her race courses that way.

Seriously, the warmer and slushier the conditions are, the more Mancuso flourishes. She’s even charted this trend, with most of her World Cup podium finishes arriving when the temperature hovers between 32 and 40 degrees.

Those balmy conditions just may exist in Sochi – or so she hopes.

“That’s my comfort zone, she said.

Her comfort zone away from the slopes includes free-diving – “I want to shoot fish and eat it,” she proudly reported – and strumming a mean ukulele, frequently playing in a band formed by U.S. Ski Team members.

And she’s enjoying not having her back be a hindrance.

“A couple of years ago, that wasn’t me because I couldn’t go outside and have fun,” she said of her back woes that really hampered her throughout the 2008-09 season.

A sudden laugh.

“I just really enjoy being healthy,” said Mancuso, who captured gold at the 2006 Turin Games and two silver medals in Vancouver four years later. “That’s what helps make me, me.”

For years, Mancuso has resided in the shadow of Vonn. Their relationship cooled, not so much out of jealousy as distance. With Vonn married back then and training on her own, they didn’t hang out.

After Vonn’s divorce two years ago, the four-time overall World Cup champion began spending more time with the speed team, getting reacquainted with everyone.

“It’s definitely made a big difference that she’s more integrated with the team,” the 29-year-old Mancuso said. “We’re all great friends. We’ve all grown up together.”

But Vonn hasn’t raced since tearing ligaments in her right knee during a high-speed accident at the world championships in February. She re-aggravated that knee last week in a training mishap and her return to the World Cup circuit remains unclear.

To Mancuso, Vonn has become a valuable resource.

“It’s always good to have a benchmark of someone faster,” Mancuso said. “It’s almost like when you’re the fastest all the time, it’s easy to get complacent.”