Julia Mancuso dipped across the finish line, immediately looked to the scoreboard and let out a scream that bellowed from the depths of her burning lungs.
She had done it. Bronze in the Sochi women’s super-combined. Career Olympic medal number four.
But, perhaps more important, she made grandpa proud.
Mancuso, 29, went to these Games with an emptiness. While the outside world concerned itself with whether she would snap out of her season-long doldrums to find the podium – like she had in Torino and twice in Vancouver – a part of her was still mourning the loss of her grandfather, who had supported her through all of the many ups and downs of her career.
Denny Lee Tuffanelli, a respected California doctor, passed away last February at the age of 83. He was quite close with Mancuso, one of his eleven grandchildren.
“When I won on the first run in the giant slalom in Torino, my grandpa was so proud of me and said, ‘Nothing else matters now. You’ve already won my race,’” Mancuso said after winning the opening downhill run by .47 seconds. “He’s in the heavens now, so I’m looking up to him right now. This is for my grandpa.”
As if the prospect of adding to her legacy as America’s winningest Olympic female Alpine skier wasn’t enough motivation, Mancuso seemed driven by a greater desire as she navigated the seemingly random collection of poles, known as turning gates, protruding from the icy Rosa Khutor slope.
When the course, which claimed nine skiers before her, tried to knock her back as she made the transfer onto the steep, she didn’t give in to those forces, somehow regained footing on her skis, and regained her rhythm. When she got to the bottom of the hill still in podium position, the emotions spilled out.
And not just for her, but for the eight family members that traveled to Russia to support her Olympic quest ring this difficult time.
Moments after the finish, Mancuso’s sister Sara, who suffered a serious back injury while the two sisters powder skied in Austria the day before the World Cup super-G in Altenmarkt, managed to hop a fence and get into the finish area, where she ran and embraced her sister.
“Oh, my gosh,” Mancuso said. “My sister — of course she would. I mean, that’s my sister who broke her back a month ago when she was coming here to support me and now here she is just like running across the finish to give me a big hug and tell me that everyone is kissing each other and crying and so happy. I mean I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Moments after she was greeted by her sister, Mancuso made her way to the rest of her family, including her 80-year-old grandmother, Sheila Tuffanelli.
“He started all of this,” Tuffanelli told USA Today of her late husband. “We met in college. He was on the first ski team at Stanford. We raised five daughters and they all were campers and skiers. Andrea had three daughters, Julia is the middle one, and they started skiing as soon as they could walk. We’re a very athletic family. I’m sorry he’s missing this.”
After pausing to collect her emotions Tuffanelli added, “He hasn’t missed it.”
She then pointed to the sky.