KRASNAYA POLYANA — Julia Mancuso was standing in the start gate, staring down a difficult run in a discipline that she had barely competed in over the last year.
She hadn’t thought she had a realistic chance to medal in the super combined, but here she was, in the lead after the downhill and set to begin the slalom.
If she can just ski with her heart, she told herself, good things will happen.
And there is something about the Olympics — the big stage, the pressure, the glory — that makes her heart grow so big it can barely fit in her race suit.
Mancuso fought through the run to win a surprise bronze Monday at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center at the Sochi Winter Olympics, the first hardware of the games for the U.S. Alpine team.
“It was kind of like crossing the finish line and saying, ‘See? It works! Believing in yourself really works!’” she said. “I got a medal today!”
The 29-year-old Squaw Valley, Calif., native becomes the third American to win individual medals in three different games. She now has a gold, two silvers and a bronze.
Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who stood in fourth after the first run, nailed the slalom to win gold. Austrian Nicole Hosp won silver.
Mancuso had a brilliant downhill run, the fastest of the day, coming from a late start position as the sun-baked course slowed. She had struggled earlier in the year, but had turned things around as the Olympics approached, scoring three World Cup top 10s in late January.
Known as a big-race skier, she has more Olympic and World Championships medals than any other American female ski racer.
“You never write her off,” said Chemmy Alcott, a fellow competitor from Great Britain and a good friend, after the downhill run. “I would have put money on that she’d come down in first.”
Women’s Alpine team head coach Alex Hoedlmoser said Mancuso uses the spirit of the Olympic Games as motivation.
“She set the tone, and she just decided to do it,” Hoedlmoser said. “She’s a true champion, and that’s why she can do those things.”
Mancuso said she was skiing for her grandfather, Denny Tuffanelli, who died a year ago and was the person who instilled in the family a love of skiing and the mountains.
“I think just from raising my mom to love skiing so much that she wanted to live in Tahoe, and she met my dad, and they just loved skiing and they’ve always been outdoorsy, adventurous people and really positive,” Mancuso said. “I think the positive energy is what really brought me to believe in myself.”
During the Torino Olympics, Tuffanelli told her after she had the top time in the first run of the giant slalom — where she eventually won gold — that he was proud of her no matter what happens.
She faced the same scenario Monday, leading after the first run.
The Mancuso family — including mom Andrea Webber, sisters Sara and April and grandmother Sheila Tuffanelli — exploded in jubilation in the stands after the first run, waving “Super Jules” and U.S. flags.
“I think that her heart is into it, and when her heart is into it, she can do and will do anything it takes,” Sara Mancuso said.
And after Julia stepped onto the podium and waved to the crowd, Sara jumped a fence and came running in for a hug.