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Admirable American

Look hard enough, and you can find an explanation for any loss. Chad Hedrick was distracted by Shani Davis. Johnny Weir couldn't find a bus. Mike Modano had to suffer the indignity of making hotel reservations for his family, and Bode Miller was apparently preoccupied with finding Italy's most perfect bar stool.

These are the laments of those who fall short. The excuses that are meant to justify failure but, really, only make it look worse.

Which brings us to the curious case of Julia Mancuso.

Her sister was supposed to make dinner Thursday night, but was nowhere to be found. So, the night before her big race, Julia whipped up Pop Tarts and leftover pasta. She didn't get much sleep either because she was engrossed in women's figure skating on TV and stayed up too late. And when she left for the slope Friday morning she forgot her credential and had to talk her way past security and up to the starting gate.

And then she skied the race of her life.

Mancuso is 21 and has never won a World Cup event, but Friday became the first U.S. skier in 22 years to win Olympic gold in the women's giant slalom.

As for her crummy night, and hectic morning?

"It doesn't matter," Mancuso said. "The only thing that matters is believing in yourself and leaving everything else behind."

Not a bad slogan, particularly in these Games, which have had a lopsided ratio of bad feelings to feel-good stories.

Mancuso is the antidote to Miller's whining and lame rationalizations. She should be the example for U.S. coaches who too often act as enablers.

Just consider what Mancuso has endured since arriving in Italy. Traveling in a 27-foot RV with older sister April, she pulled into a hotel parking lot in this mountain village next to Miller's RV and Daron Rahlves' bus.

Miller and Rahlves had arranged to hook up their vehicles with the hotel's electricity, but when Mancuso tried to plug in she caused a blackout in the hotel. That was the end of her electricity.

Her father Ciro eventually bought her a generator, but keeping the RV heated in 20-degree weather was a chore.

"The generator worked," April said, "but I was out there filling it up with gas every two hours."

She laughs as she tells the story, clearly indicating the rough spots have been smoothed over. (Rahlves hit the road after failing to medal in his events, and the Mancuso RV took over his hotel hookup for electricity.)

It is not the first time the Mancuso girls have had to bond together to make it through difficult times. It is, by this time, a family trait.

When Julia was 5, police in Lake Tahoe, Nev., came to the Mancuso home to arrest her father. A land developer, Ciro Mancuso was accused of running a $140-million marijuana smuggling operation for more than a decade.

Mancuso eventually agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in other cases and spent a little more than five years in prison in two stints over 10 years, although reports say he was allowed to keep millions in investments.

For Julia, it was an ongoing drama throughout most of her childhood. She was an accomplished skier at the time of her father's arrest, but her mother said she threw herself into the sport as a way to escape.

"She had circumstances in her childhood that certainly made her a tough, tough human being," said Andrea Mancuso, who was divorced from Ciro in 1992. "It caused her to focus and face adversity and not let it faze her."

Having been released from prison seven years ago, Ciro Mancuso has since reconnected with his daughters and has financially supported Julia's career.

He was in Sestriere Friday morning along with Julia's mother, her grandparents and two of her sisters. What they saw was a remarkably poised performance for a racer not yet in her prime.

Conditions at the course were brutal, with heavy snow and fog making visibility difficult. The course was shortened in the morning for safety purposes, and by the afternoon run course workers were hustling to keep the blue lines visible while the skiers were coming down the slope.

As bad as conditions seemed, they may have helped Mancuso. She said the fresh powder was similar to what she grew up on in Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley, Calif., and her teammates said the course was suited to Mancuso's daring style.

She had the fastest run in the morning and was 0.01 away from the fastest run in the afternoon, giving her a healthy 0.67 margin of victory.

When she reached the bottom of the course and saw her gold medal confirmed on the scoreboard, Mancuso put both hands to her face and fell backward into the snow.

So what does an Olympic championship mean to her?

"I'm going to have a really cool gold medal," Mancuso said. "And maybe I'll get a bigger RV, and have power for the whole Olympics."

I tend to think her performance means more than that. I think it's lesson that could mean a lot if people are paying attention.

No excuses.

Just results.