Julia Mancuso is a big-game skier, and so much more. She surfs. She does yoga. She does tons of high-profile charity work. She is an adventure traveler. It's all part of the package.
When she's fit and when she's been training hard, she's as good as an alpine racer as anyone in the world.
Mancuso proved that again Saturday with a third place in the giant slalom at the Aspen World Cup stop, a notoriously difficult hill.
If at first third place in a World Cup stop doesn't sound like all that big a deal, consider:
-- It was the first American top-three finish in seven years, since Kristina Koznick took a third in a slalom in 2004
-- It was only the second podium finish ever for an American women in Aspen. Tamara McKinney won the Aspen GS in 1981. McKinney, who is from Squaw Valley, California, was on hand Saturday in Aspen to watch; Mancuso is from the Lake Tahoe area as well and the racing suit she wore Saturday featured a Squaw Valley trail map on it, which -- again -- tells you about Jules, as she is known to those who know her.
Germany's Viktoria Regensburg won the race, in a combined time of 2 minutes, 11.25 seconds. Austria's Elisabeth Goergl took second, 33-hundredths of a second behind.
Mancuso finished 11-hundredths behind Goergl.
American Lindsey Vonn, who won the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria, last month, finished twelfth. The Aspen course has always given Vonn trouble; further, her back has been bothering her after tweaking it in training last week.
Mancuso is of course the 2006 Torino Games GS gold medalist and the 2010 Vancouver Games silver medalist in the downhill and super-combined, results that have cemented her reputation as a big-game skier.
She has always had incredible talent. The challenge has always been her fitness and consistency. Last season, she showed what she could do when all that talent met hard work and she stayed healthy over the course of a season:
Five World Cup podiums, including a win at the final downhill. Third in both the final downhill and super-G standings. Fifth in the overall standings.
She said Saturday, "I was really happy with my season last year. There were a couple times when I wasn't as consistent, I would say. Being in the top 10 I am always psyched. Building off last year, I guess, I can try being in the top five every race. But I'd say I really like to go out and ski and have fun. If I can have a season just like last year, I'll be happy. Better than last year, I'll be happy, also."
In Soelden last month, Mancuso finished in tenth place. She then came back home for a month of training at Vail and Copper Mountain.
So Saturday's podium wasn't really all that big a surprise. She had, as she said afterward, been training hard and fast:
"It's always good to ski fast and to have a podium. That gives me confidence. I'm just real excited. My GS has been training really well. To be able to do it in the race, to get back on the podium, I haven't been on the podium in the GS in a long time," since December 2007, in Lienz, Austria, in fact, "so it feels really good to be right in there, and I am hoping to just keep that going for the rest of the season."
At the same time, the reason she was training hard and well is because, when all is said and done, she's Julia Mancuso, and where some skiers are out there seemingly waging a personal war with the mountain, Jules -- who loves to free ski -- is out there reveling in the moment.
"I really like Aspen," she said.
"I have always had really good -- every time I have raced here I have been close to top 10, or top 10. So I have always really liked the hill. I think in general you just have to think about free skiing -- not really look at the gates, just 'cuz there is so much terrain, it's more about, you know, flowing, moving with the terrain to the finish. Because there's really -- there's the one road where it flattens out in the middle but, other than that, it's always moving and kind of steep.
"It's a lot of fun," she said, summing up, which is the exact same thing surfers say when they describe, you know, like, a really excellent day.