Mancuso Aiming To Fill McKinney's Ski Boots

Wednesday, March 14th 2007, 7:41 am
By: News On 6

LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland (AP) _ Two years ago, Julia Mancuso watched Bode Miller ski down these slopes to become the first U.S. World Cup overall champion in 22 years. Now she's hoping it's her turn to end an even longer drought for the American women.

Vying with three powerful Austrians for the overall title, Mancuso could become the only U.S. woman to claim the largest of crystal globes since Tamara McKinney won the overall title 24 years ago.

``I've got a lot of other teams rooting for me, telling me to take the Austrians down,'' said Mancuso after Tuesday's downhill training, her voice hoarse and tired. ``I'm like 'OK, no pressure.'''

For the first time in years, the chase for the men's and women's overall titles have come down to the wire. Only four races remain each for the men and women.

The finals kick off with downhills Wednesday followed by super-Gs on Thursday. Both overall titles will likely only be decided in the weekend's concluding slalom and giant-slalom events.

Austria's technical specialist Marlies Schild tops the overall table with 1,302 points, with teammate Nicole Hosp just 15 behind. Mancuso is third, trailing by 51, while speed specialist Renate Goetschl is fourth, 102 back.

Hosp and Mancuso will aim to get ahead by outscoring Schild in the speed events, but Goetschl is under the most immediate pressure. Though she's won this season's downhill and super-G titles, she's not a realistic contender in either the slalom or giant slalom.

``I think that for Renate ... it's going to be tough,'' Mancuso said. ``Even picking up two wins in the downhill and super-G, she still has a lot of points to make up. Other than that, anything can happen with the rest of us.''

On the men's side, defending champion Benjamin Raich of Austria holds a 92-point lead over Swiss downhill ace Didier Cuche. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who led the overall most of the season, trails Raich by 103. Miller is a distant fourth and all but mathematically eliminated.

While Olympic gold may bring the most public recognition, it is the overall title that earns the most respect among racers.

It demonstrates which skier was the best over five months and three dozen races, in all disciplines, from the tightly set slalom courses to the long, straight downhills where skiers reach speeds of 90 mph.

Some, like Svindal and Miller, compete in nearly every event, fighting sickness and injury, in an attempt to win the coveted trophy.

``It was a dream goal of mine this year to be leading the overall,'' said Mancuso, who led the standings with Goetschl for a week this month. ``I missed out on a lot of points in the beginning of the season ... so I think just making it this far and being in there is pretty outstanding. And I'm psyched because I know I can do better.''

Though Mancuso won the giant slalom gold at the Turin Olympics, she finished last year eighth overall and entered this season still winless on the World Cup. But this season, she's had four victories and 10 podium results so far this season.

``No matter what happens, I'm psyched about my year,'' Mancuso said. ``And fourth in the world _ at worst _ is a pretty big achievement for me.''

The last skier _ man or woman _ to win the overall the same season of their first career World Cup win was Switzerland's Paul Accola in 1991-92.

Raich, the Olympic slalom and giant slalom champion, will try for as many points as possible in the speed events before his preferred technical races. At the World Cup finals, only the top 15 finishers score points. Normally, the top 30 finishers get points.

``I have to improve in downhill,'' said Raich, who was only 19th in Tuesday's downhill practice.

Cuche, who's already clinched the downhill globe, will need to get ahead in the speed races before the tech events. He was second in training behind Liechtenstein's Marco Buechel. Svindal crossed third.

Miller, who has four wins and led the overall for one day this season, finished back in 13th and again refused to speak to the media. Team officials say they have no control over his accessibility to the media.

The technical experts should have the advantage in Lenzerheide, with gates on the downhill course set tight and narrow.

``The hill is not made for a downhill,'' Buechel said. ``There's no high-speed gliding section.''

That was underscored by Schild's performance, a technical expert who's won seven-of-eight slaloms this season. But she edged Goetschl for first place in Tuesday's training.

Meanwhile, Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein and Monika Dumermuth of Switzerland have pulled out of the downhill. The 17-year-old Weirather tore ligaments in both her knees after crashing in training on Tuesday. Dumermuth, who turns 30 on Wednesday, also suffered a knee injury from a training accident.

Luccia Recchia of Italy withdrew from Thursday's super-G because of a back problem.