Thursday, January 19, 2006
Traditionally, trainers don’t pull hair. But apparently it can work wonders: It helped mold 21-year-old California native Julia Mancuso into one of the most exciting American Olympic skiers on the snow.
“My older sister was a really motivated skier and we would just rip all the time,” Mancuso told me during a telephone conversation last week, after a day of World Cup competition on the slopes of Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria. “But I had to ski as long as my sister was skiing, and she wouldn’t leave. She’d pull my hair—and push me to stay out until the end.”
This wasn’t traditional training like the workouts she does with Heindrick Bergmueller, who also works with Olympic legend Hermann Maier of Austria. Or the relentless cross-training she did in Maui over the summer. But it might be the most relevant to Mancuso’s showing at February’s Olympics in Torino, Italy.
That’s because once Mancuso straps on her Rossignols for the Red, White and Blue, she’ll rarely leave the slopes: She’ll compete in each of the alpine disciplines, a feat matched on the US team only by the blur known as Bode Miller and Vail-native Lindsey Kildow. That means, in the space of a week, she’ll brave the Downhill (and its risky 90-miles-per-hour speeds, icy mile-long length and jumps that keep skiers airborne for 100 feet); the Super G (think the speed of Downhill with big arcs around well-spaced gates); the Giant Slalom (a 40-mile-per-hour technical test with gates 60 to 100 feet apart); the Slalom (another technical challenge where body-armored skiers crash through much tighter, breakaway gates); and the Combined (which parlays a downhill run with two slaloms in a tough test of endurance and adaptability).
That’s exceptional versatility, says her ski coach at Squaw Valley, Mark “Sully” Sullivan. “It’s fairly rare,” the 30-year-veteran coach says. “There aren’t many skiers who can do that.”
And she does it with the best in the world. During 2005, Mancuso became the first US woman since Picabo Street in 1996 to pull down two medals at the World Championships. In all reality, not only can Mancuso do that, it seems that she must. “It’s hard to sit and watch everyone else race,” she says, “when you just want to be out there.”
That restlessness is Mancuso’s trademark.
During a summer spent on the North Shore of Maui (her family splits time between Olympic Valley and the island), Julia swam, ran and mountain-biked regularly. She also completed a triathlon (raising money for Truckee-based Choices, an activity hub for the mentally and physically challenged, along the way). And she surfed—conventionally and with a kite in her hands.
“She never stops. She’s the kind of kid who’s up at 7am on Sunday, when everybody’s resting, going, ‘What is there to do?’” says her father, Ciro Mancuso. “I say, ‘Relax, we can rest one day, it’s time to rest,’ and she’s going to yoga…
“A lot of athletes are very monofocal and do skiing well and that’s about it. This last summer, she became a very good kite surfer—she’s already doing flips, which normally takes a few years.”
Ciro says the nonstop, multifaceted training really helped her improve her already remarkable balance and body awareness—all while she got to do things she enjoyed.
And that wasn’t all. Beyond the constant carousel of aerobic activities, she tackled highly-focused workouts with world-class trainer Scott Sanchez of Maximum Performance Group, a cutting edge agency that trains a number of top surfers. They took on everything from weights to medicine ball work in order to increase strength and flexibility, even embracing “vibration plate” technology, where a vibrating platform used for exercises like squats and lunges forces the entire system of muscles to be engaged.
Ciro feels the effects of such an aggressive summer have yet to be fully realized—a scary thought for opponents, given her five top-five finishes in the 2005 World Cup, and the fact that at only 21, the 5-foot 6-inch powerhouse is already entering her second Olympics.
Of course, Julia Mancuso isn’t exactly sitting around waiting for the biggest runs of her life. She trains six hours a day on and off the mountain, and says that working with the revered ski coach Heindrick Bergmueller has “brought a totally different technique to her training.” She says his approach, which stresses long, low-intensity exercise (like riding a stationary bike extensively), coordination, and core-strength training, means she’s improved her maneuvering and her ability to recover more quickly from the stressful effects of skiing.
Still, according to her coach and her father, it’s that original trainer, her sister April (who’s three and a half years older than Julia), who provided the most crucial preparation possible for her skiing career, which includes an American-record eight world juniors medals.
“No doubt the major thing [to her development] was that she was always chasing her sister around Squaw,” says Coach Sully.
“She always had the older girl,” says Ciro. “Now she’s going after the other skiers just like she went after her sister—all the girls that are on top of the World Cup are at least five years older. She’s watching them and learning all the time: ‘That’s the best person, how’s she so good? How can I be as good or better?’”
April, who went on to dominate NCAA skiing at Utah for the
length of her college career, is now taking a semester off
from med school to travel by RV with Julia to World Cup events
all across Europe. Julia says April is her best friend.
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As impressive as her physical prowess is, Julia’s not without an equally impressive personal balance. She graduated from high school with a 4.0 and honors at age 16. She harbors plans of performances on a stage as big as the Olympics—through professional singing and comedy. “I’m working on projecting my voice,” she says. “Right away, within my reach is Saturday Night Live.”
She also enjoys painting—her dad says she’s been winning awards for her art since grade school. That creative tendency has even added a competitive edge—call it the Super Jules Effect.
“I redesigned this underwear—Super Julius by Paul Frank,” she says. “I like to make my own additions to clothing.” The little Paul Frank monkey got a silver cape, Super Julius became Super Jules, and she won her races that day, which inspired her to wear the lucky undies on race days ever since.
The formal training, the big sister push, and the undergarment charm all could translate to a dream run come Torino—where Coach Sully says he “wouldn’t be surprised if she podiumed.” Her best chances should be in Super G and Giant Slalom. Then again, Outside magazine aptly described her as a “perpetual threat” to medal in any event.
Julia sees that dream run come together like this:
“In the start gate [American Olympic Skiing Coach Patrick Riml] always tells me to think of something funny or stupid that has nothing to do with skiing, like jelly donuts—and I don’t even eat jelly donuts…I won’t remember anything really except taking out the gates, then the excitement of knowing you skied a fast run and the realization, at the bottom of the mountain, that you skied fast. There at the bottom, just knowing.”
It might be one of the few times anyone sees Julia Mancuso truly happy when she’s not moving.