Judging by Julia Mancuso's exuberant finish line celebrations, you would have thought the American Alpine skier had won gold in Monday's super combined instead of bronze.
Beaming and breathlessly cheering, laughing and hugging competitors (and even confessing her run didn't feel that good), the 29-year-old seemed stunned to be on the Olympic podium after struggling all season with lackluster results.
The medal, Mancuso's fourth (she took gold in Torino and a pair of silvers in Vancouver), makes her the first American Alpine skier to medal in three consecutive Olympics, and once again proves she can deliver the goods when it counts.
Despite the superlative streak, however, her recent results — or lack thereof — didn't exactly portend big things for these Games. Then again, Mancuso — a skier who spends most of her summer in Hawaii instead of on snow — has never been one to stick to the script.
On day three of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Lake Tahoe, Calif., resident stormed to a first run lead in the downhill portion of the race, blitzing the treacherous Rosa Khutor course with a stunning performance down its steep slopes.
But it was her ability to hold on in the second leg that secured her a medal.
With a bevy of slalom specialists nipping at her heels, Mancuso — who hadn't competed in the discipline all season — had her work cut out for her going into run number two. Considering the heavy competition, a medal of any color would be an accomplishment.
Skiing last among the favorites (racers start in reverse order based on their finishing position in the downhill portion), Mancuso watched as the course deteriorated under warmer, snow-softening conditions, tripping up skier after skier.
When fellow speed specialist Lara Gut of Switzerland (the second fastest woman in the downhill) failed to complete the second leg, Mancuso's fate seemed all but sealed: this would be a day for the slalom skiers. Three of them — Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Austria's Nicole Hosp and Slovenia's Tina Maze — stood on the provisional podium below, their eyes nervously trained on Mancuso in the start house.
Mancuso looked even more nervous standing in the starting gate. With Bode Miller's failure to live up to his favorite status in Sunday's downhill and teammate Lindsey Vonn's absence from these games, all pressure stood squarely on Mancuso's petite shoulders.
But just as she's done time and time again when the stakes are raised, Mancuso didn't let nerves or a lack of practice stand in the way of her skiing. Using the soft snow conditions to her advantage (the Nevada native grew up skiing in Squaw Valley, where spring-like conditions are the norm), she found her rhythm early in the twisty course, carrying speed from top to bottom with nary a bobble. She hit the finish line with the 13th best slalom leg, giving her an aggregate time that was good enough for bronze.
That was all it took for the vivacious Mancuso (she owns a lingerie line named Kiss My Tiara, after all) to hoot and holler, freshen up with some makeup and break out the American flag for the cameras. Her unabashed reaction made for a feel good, light-hearted moment, especially in comparison to winner Hoefl-Riesch, who merely looked relieved.
Mancuso's bronze puts the American Alpine team on the boards with its first medal of these Games. And with the women's downhill on the docket for Wednesday, an on-form Mancuso has a good chance of adding to that haul, not to mention her own Olympic legend.