Olympics 2014: Is Julia Mancuso the Greatest U.S. Women’s Skier Ever?

| February 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

Julia Mancuso celebrates after Monday’s bronze medal performance in super combined at Sochi in a photo posted to her Facebook fan page.

Written By Kyle Magin

Julia Mancuso is crafting a befuddling legacy.

No female U.S. Olympic downhill skier has done what she’s done after winning bronze earlier this week at Sochi in the downhill combined race: Namely, win as many medals as she has (4—a gold, two silvers and the bronze) or win as consistently at the Olympics as she has (medaled all three games since Torino in 2006).

If she podiums again in Sochi, the 29-year old Squaw Valley native can become one of the U.S.’s greatest Olympic alpine skiers of all time regardless of gender.

All this makes hanging the title of Greatest-Ever American Woman Downhill Skier on her tiara-ed head a no brainer, right?

Eh, not so fast.

Mancuso is electric at the Olympics, winning and hitting the podium at a far more frequent rate than she ever does in skiing’s yearly World Cup events. Even there she really only has two American peers—her contemporary, rival/friend Lindsey Vonn, and her Squaw Valley “neighbor,” Tamara McKinney, who skied mainly in the 1980s.

But a quick look at the numbers suggests her total body of work doesn’t quite compare to those all-time greats. Mancuso averages a 29th place finish in the World Cup standings over her 13 year career. She’s won 7 races, reached 35 podiums and failed to win a single season title. Her showings have been strong, doubtless—seven top-10 overall season finishes, one top-3 overall finish, as well as top-3 season successes in Super G, downhill and combined. Nothing to sneeze at. In fact, outside of the women we’re about to compare her to, she’s nearly without equal as far as Americans are concerned.

McKinney is the group’s ingénue—she cracked the top-10 in the circuit’s standings while still a teen, winning 18 races and climbing 45 podiums in a career that saw her average 15th in overall finishes. She won four season titles—one overall, two in giant slalom and one in slalom, in addition to six top-10 overall finishes, two top-3 overall finishes and massive success in slalom and giant slalom over an injury-shortened 11-year career. Comparing her to the two others is slightly tricky because Super-G wasn’t a World Cup event for the bulk of her career.

Vonn—in the total context of her 12-year World Cup career—is the group’s undisputed queen. She’s topped the podium 59 times alone, averages a  20th place overall finish and owns an astounding 17 season titles—four overall, six in downhill, four in Super G and three in combined. She’s finished in the top-10 nine times and the top-3 five times. With two Olympic medals—one gold—she’s the Greatest Ever American Woma…


In America, the World Cup is relatively obscure, even among sports fans. That’s why most nationally have never heard of McKinney, who despite making three Olympics, never medaled. Vonn’s World Cup career is an achievement of note, to be sure, but without Olympic gold, does she end up getting guest spots on Law & Order or landing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? It’s less clear.

Mancuso, in light of her ability to friggin’ bring it every quadrennial, upsets what appears to be a pretty lineal equation. Sure, others have done it more consistently, did it younger and did it really well over a longer period of time, but nobody, ever, did it bigger or more consistently on the Olympic stage.

Almost in all sports there’s no clear comparison for Mancuso. Team sports allot you an athlete infrequently like Mariano Rivera or Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, who seem to shine when the spotlight is the brightest. But, both of those guys had a lot of well-paid backup to render their very important roles rather minor in the grand scheme of title-winning. Top individual sport athletes—Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Andre Agassi, Shaun White, Pete Sampras—all dominated their rivals in-season, at least for a time, in a similar fashion to their Olympic or equivalent title success.

So here you have it—a legacy that could go in a few different directions, depending on your contextual lens. Mancuso is the weakest of a very, very strong group in the World Cup—skiing’s non-Olympic circuit. She’s the most successful Olympian by multiple medals (part of this, as in all sports, is by luck—Vonn missed the 2014 Olympics after a knee injury. You never know what you’ll never know.)

Does her Olympic success sway you? Does she need to be more consistent in World Cup competition? Let’s hear what you have to say in the comments.

(Julia competes again in downhill starting at 11 p.m. PST today.)

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