Julia Mancuso’s Sochi bronze about family, not legacy

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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.

WATCH: Mancuso edges in for downhill bronze

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.

MORE: Mancuso takes bronze behind Hoefl-Riesch, Hosp

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.

WATCH: Mancusco breaks down her bronze run

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.”

MORE: Mancuso finds fun, excitement in fourth Olympic medal

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.

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John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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