Julia Mancuso: the next big-mountain pro?

In August, Julia Mancuso's name popped up on the start list for New Zealand's World Heli Challenge, a big-mountain and freestyle skiing competition. Yes, that Julia Mancuso, the ski racer who snagged two silver medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and a gold medal in the giant slalom at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. She didn't end up competing at the New Zealand event, but if she had, it would have been her second freeskiing competition this year.

In March, Mancuso showed up to compete in the Verbier Xtreme, one of the world's toughest big-mountain competitions and the final stop on the Freeride World Tour, held on the Bec de Rosses in Verbier, Switzerland. Last week, we reported that starting this winter, women will not be competing in the main events of the Freeride World Tour, but they'll still compete in Verbier. Most competitors at Verbier arrive days in advance to study the face with binoculars and inspect their lines. Not Mancuso.

"She showed up the day of the comp, and not particularly early," says J.T. Holmes, a fellow competitor and pro freeskier from Squaw Valley, Calif. "She comes off the tram, no binoculars, seeking a snack, totally disheveled -- doesn't even have her favorite skis for freeskiing, as she was on the World Cup race mission that trip." Holmes helped her pick a line, a technical descent with a 15-foot mandatory air at the top and a steep apron at the bottom.

Mancuso linked turns down the face as smooth and fast as if she were on a groomed super G course, hitting a few airs and stomping the landings. She got third place. "She skied faster, more powerfully and with the least hesitation of all the girls," Holmes says. "The reason she didn't win was that she didn't milk the venue for enough little cliff jumps. But she was the only girl who skied off a cliff without slowing down and looking scared."

When asked about her podium finish at Verbier, Mancuso just shrugs. "I compete enough during the season," she said recently from her hotel room in Portillo, Chile. "I signed up to compete at Verbier just for the experience and the challenge. I wasn't looking for a winning line; I was looking for a safe run."

So Mancuso's "safe line" landed her in third place in the world's toughest freeskiing comp. Not bad for a skier who spends most of her time on the hill bashing gates and wearing spandex suits. Someday, she says, she'd like to become a pro freeskier, but for now, she's committed to ski racing until the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or the 2015 World Championships at Vail, Colo. "But yeah, I'd love to go ski lines in Alaska and film," she says.

It's not completely unusual for a ski racer to transition into the big-mountain world. Just look at 37-year-old former Olympian Daron Rahlves, who won 12 World Cups in ski racing and now rides Alaskan spines in Teton Gravity Research films. But what is unusual is that 26-year-old Mancuso is just toying with the idea of becoming a pro freeskier, yet she's practically at the top of the big-mountain game without even trying.

"Do I think Julia could be the next big-mountain pro freeskier?" Holmes says. "Absolutely, if she chooses to, it would be easy for her."

She's gotten to this point simply by spending time outside the race course -- skiing powder and hitting cliffs at her home mountain of Squaw Valley. During the Olympics this past winter, when races were canceled due to weather, she went powder skiing with her sister. "My coaches sometimes get mad -- they say I need to save myself for the race or they say, 'Stay safe,'" she says. "I don't always tell my coaches everything."

But she realizes a lot could happen between now and when she retires from racing. "It's hard. Once we're done ski racing, you're older and your body hurts," she says. "But I'm getting the hang of keeping my injuries under control and staying strong."

For now, she's happy to do the occasional big-mountain competition when it fits into her hectic travel schedule. Besides, she says, a big-mountain comp isn't that different from a downhill race. "You get the one-chance thing," she says. "You're standing at the top. Then you drop in and your mind clears in the moment. You get to the bottom, and then you watch everyone else come down."

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