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Lindsey Vonn's stand-in? Julia Mancuso aims to take Sochi by storm

Story highlights

  • Julia Mancuso is hoping to fill the Winter Olympics void left by the injured Lindsey Vonn
  • The 29-year-old won a gold medal in 2006 and two silvers at Vancouver 2010
  • Her alternative Sochi preparations have involved escaping to Hawaii mid-season
  • From a rough start -- her dad was jailed for drug smuggling -- she has made it to the top

While U.S. sports fans were coming to terms with the news that glamor girl Lindsey Vonn would miss the Winter Olympics, the woman who could again prove to be the nation's skiing sweetheart was relaxing on a beach.

Vonn had been ruled out of a trip to Sochi by a serious knee injury, and things weren't going well for Julia Mancuso either.

Frustrated by a difficult start to the World Cup season, the three-time Olympic medalist had escaped the cold to regroup at her Hawaii hideout.

While her rivals were fine-tuning their technique on the slopes, she was bedecked in a bikini and plunging into the clear waters that surround Maui.

"It's definitely alternative but it's what I needed," Mancuso told CNN. "It felt good. I'd had equipment issues and had been changing ski boots all the time. So for one I just decided to stick with one ski boot and that's the decision, that's great.

"Part of it, is that when things go wrong, you think of everything possible is wrong, like the boots or whatever.

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    "I went back home and sure I had some concerns. But I got my head round it."

    The break helped -- since returning on January 11, Mancuso has managed her first three top-10 finishes of the season and been confirmed in the U.S. team for Sochi alongside 18-year-old sensation Mikaela Shiffrin, who is already a world champion in the slalom discipline.

    "I'm ready, I'm in a good place and I still feel I can get medals in Sochi, multiple medals in my three events," Mancuso says, brimming with confidence.

    "It just depends how the days go. What I've learned in my career is that anything is possible. In Sochi, it will just depend how the days go."

    Mancuso, who won giant slalom gold in 2006 and two silvers in 2010, is used overcoming mixed performances in her Olympic buildups.

    Before Turin, she only hit form on the eve of the Games and triumphed despite knee pain, while come Vancouver she had not managed a top-three finish in a World Cup event for two years because of back problems.

    "What I've done in the Olympics for sure gives me great confidence," she admits. "But I don't plan on suddenly doing that just because I'm at an Olympics.

    "I'm just trying the best I can in every race. I don't think there's any secret. Sometimes things don't go your way and sometimes they do."

    Four years ago, she finished second in the downhill behind Vonn at Whistler -- but couldn't get within half a minute of her teammate's winning time despite making "the run of my life."

    Last March, she took third place at the world championships in the Super-G race where Vonn earlier crashed and tore her knee ligaments.

    They are both the same age -- 29 -- but Mancuso has been unable to match Vonn's incredible consistency on the World Cup circuit, which has brought her six overall titles and 59 race wins.

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    "I'd be lying if I said Lindsey not being there (at Sochi) doesn't help," Mancuso says. "It's been so tough for her this year with her injury and not knowing whether she would compete. But as a competitor it's definitely one less rival for me.

    "Look at Vancouver. I had the run of my life. I was a second quicker than the next girl and Lindsey was still better. So this is obviously a huge opportunity for me."

    Without Vonn in her way in the downhill, life is certainly easier. The pair have had their ups and downs in the past but there has always been a mutual respect between them, and they had been training together until Vonn's latest setback.

    "She can be so consistent and that's incredible," says Mancuso. "Because of that, she's such a great athlete."

    Read: Vonn out of Sochi Olympics

    Despite Vonn's absence, Mancuso says she doesn't feel any added pressure to perform.

    "I want to help inspire and I think the other American girls can do really well. We just need to be supportive," she says.

    "The pressure is before getting to Sochi, making sure everything is aligned. When I get to Sochi, I'll relax. I'll have no fear as everything will work out how it's supposed to."

    The Olympics have been dangled in front of her as long as she can remember, the signs still standing on the slopes at Squaw Valley where she learned to ski -- and which hosted the 1960 Winter Games.

    Her upbringing in the Lake Tahoe area was far from normal. At the age of five, her father Ciro was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison for his part in a $140 million cannabis smuggling racket.

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    He ended up serving two terms of 17 months and four years -- the latter starting in 1995 after he and Mancuso's mother Andrea had divorced.

    It is a moment she says "helped me focus on skiing, it's all I wanted to do after that point."

    Despite the disruption to her family life, she has managed to move on.

    "I love to have fun in my life in whatever I do and whatever life brings, whether that's on the ski slopes or designing underwear," says Mancuso, who launched her own own lingerie line in 2010.

    "I just want to have fun. I want to smile a lot and bring smiles."

    Her dad will be there to watch her in Sochi, as he did in Turin. As will her younger sister Sara, a musician who also competes in the free-skiing big-mountain competitions -- she is likely to be in a neck brace after breaking two vertebrae in her back in a recent fall.

    Mancuso says she has "no idea" if Sochi will be her last Olympics -- for now she's just enjoying being back in the groove.

    "I don't love it necessarily when I get to races, but then you get in the gate and I want to go faster," she says.

    "It's fun again, it's all about how you feel. And I guess that's the adrenalin-junkie side of me. I still love it, but sometimes you have to fight to find that sweet spot.

    "When it's easy, it's the easiest thing in the world as it feels right. But when you're struggling, you're searching for answers.

    "I'm thankful for the success I've had over the years. It's been awesome."

    Read: Vonn set for long layoff following successful surgery