In 2006, I sat in the library at the Outside offices and made my case for why the magazine needed a feature story on ski racer Julia Mancuso. Earlier that year, Mancuso had surprised everybody who pays any attention to ski racing by winning the gold medal in the giant slalom event at the Olympics in Torino, Italy. She hadn’t done a whole lot before, but she seemed on the brink of breaking out. She could be the first American woman to win an overall World Cup title in 25 years, I argued. Moreover, I thought that, due to her ability, sass (she wore a tiara in one of her races at the Olympics), and good looks, she could transcend the sport, taking on Maria Sharapova-like fame.
“OK,” said Chris Keyes, the editor of the magazine. “So who are we gonna get to write it?” I was an associate editor and I’d never been sent outside the office to report a story. “Um, how about me?” I responded. Mancuso spent her offseason surfing, paddleboarding, and hiking around Maui. Going down there and tagging along seemed like a pretty great first assignment—and Keyes bit.
As it turned out, Mancuso played as hard as she ski raced. And she insisted that I play just as hard. After four days in Maui, I left black and blue and even more impressed by Mancuso, whose breeziness was infectious. As my colleague Grayson Schaffer later wrote, “Mancuso is the Olympic champion you’d want to drink a beer with.”
Julia Mancuso retired Friday after a remarkable 18-year career. She didn’t quite achieve everything that I’d predicted she would, but she still leaves the sport as one of the most important figures in the history of American ski racing. Because of her success at the important, high-pressure events, she earned a reputation as a big-race skier. She went on to win three more Olympic medals (two silvers and a bronze), making her the most decorated American ski racer in Olympic history. In addition, she won five World Championship medals and reached the podium in 36 World Cup races, winning seven.
But despite landing on magazine covers (including Outside's, in 2014), she didn’t reach mainstream celebrity status. That honor, of course, went to Mancuso’s teammate, Lindsey Vonn. If it wasn’t for Mancuso, though, Vonn might have never enjoyed the success that she has.
The two grew up racing against each other, constantly pushing each other to be better. Though their personal relationship always seemed a bit frosty, Vonn thanked her rival Friday. “If it wasn’t for Julia Mancuso,” she said, “I wouldn’t still be here and wouldn’t have been so successful. We pushed each other for so many years.”
Mancuso skied her final race Friday in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the place where she scored her first World Cup podium. Still sassy as ever, she wore a red cape, her tiara now airbrushed onto her helmet.