SPOILER ALERT – The women’s super combined downhill will air prime time Monday night.
Julia Mancuso showed yet again she’s a big-game player, racing into the lead of the downhill portion of the Olympic super-combined on Monday and setting herself up for yet another medal.
The American skier sped down the 2.7-kilometer (1.69-mile) Rosa Khutor course in 1 minute, 42.68 seconds, 0.47 faster than second-place Lara Gut of Switzerland.
The winner will be decided after a slalom run on an adjoining course later Monday.
Mancuso has a best finish of seventh in World Cup races this season but owns three Olympic medals — including super-combined silver four years ago — and five world championships medals.
She shrieked with delight while skiing across the finish area, stretching both arms up and twirling her right ski pole.
“I just love being here at the Olympics. It’s so much fun. I get really energized,” said Mancuso, the most decorated American woman in Olympic Alpine skiing. “First race of the Olympics, so I was excited, and I really just focused on being aerodynamic and going for it.”
Besides her super-combined silver, she won gold in giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Olympics and silver in downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Before heading to her slalom run, Mancuso posted a tribute to her late grandfather on her Twitter account.
“My grandpa is smiling down at me from heaven and saying I can be proud no matter what happens! This one’s for you Grandpa Denny:) (hash)discotime,” she wrote.
Tina Maze of Slovenia was third fastest, 0.86 behind, and is typically stronger in slalom. Mancuso and Gut do not usually compete in World Cup slaloms.
Defending Olympic champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany was fifth, trailing Mancuso by 1.04.
Another pre-race favorite, Nicole Hosp of Austria, was eighth, 1.27 back, and slalom specialist Marie-Michele Gagnon of Canada had 2.71 to make up in 21st place.
Racers skied in bright sunshine and under clear skies, though much of the course was in shadows cast by surrounding mountains and trees lining the course.
Gut, starting No. 10, finally found the Olympic course to her liking after complaining last week it was too flat and not icy enough in training.
Mancuso was the last of the top-ranked skiers to start, wearing No. 22. She was 0.23 ahead at the first time split, dropped 0.19 behind Gut at the second, then steadily built her lead toward the finish with aggressive, clean skiing.
“I was just full of energy when I kicked out of the start, and the snow felt a little bit softer so it was easier to really drive into my ski,” Mancuso said.
Despite under-achieving during the grueling World Cup season, Mancuso showed flashes of true form in January with two seventh-place finishes in downhill and super-G at one of her favorite venues, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
“I knew that was going to happen with Julia,” said her friend and fellow racer Chemmy Alcott of Britain. “You just know it. You can just never expect anything less from her in the Olympics.”