Can Julia Mancuso fill Lindsey Vonn void for United States at Sochi Games?

With the star of skiing out of the Winter Olympics, the US are pinning their hopes on the next in line

"Own the podium" demanded the controversial Canadian slogan ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Games. There were many who did not care for the tone as the home nation topped the medal table. Yet there was one area where it did not have an effect, on the slopes of Whistler Mountain; instead it was the noisy neighbours who led the way, claiming twice as many skiing medals as any other country in their best-ever Winter Games.

Four years on and United States hopes of repeating their dominance in Sochi are in tatters. Lindsey Vonn, the golden girl of the US ski team, the US Winter Olympic team and the Games themselves, is out and the country's other two big names are in no sort of form to suggest they might come close to sneaking on to even the podium's bottom step. Ted Ligety's world championship treble last year offers one cause for optimism but Bode Miller, winner of three medals in 2010, is 36 and struggling for form and fitness, while Julia Mancuso, two medals in 2010, is back home in California taking an unscheduled break from a season in which she has failed to secure a top-10 finish.

In Vancouver the latter leapt on to the podium and launched into a hip-wriggling celebration of claiming downhill silver behind Vonn. With Vonn gone, the focus in the women's team switches to Mancuso, who complained in the build-up to 2010 about the obsession with Vonn at the expense of the rest of the team, and the bright young thing of US skiing, Mikaela Shiffrin, at 18 already a slalom world champion.

Shiffrin, who like Mancuso first raced in the World Cup at 15, has the form to put her in medal contention next month. A self-confessed "goofball", she represents the next generation and is of an age that appeals to NBC, the Games' US broadcasters, who like the International Olympic Committee, are keen to attract a younger, fresher X-Games-type audience.

It was two days before Olympic year dawned that Mancuso announced she was leaving the World Cup circuit in Europe and heading home. "You learn the most when things don't go as planned," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Perspective is everything. I'm taking a short break at home to change my perspective, hit the recharge button, explore some equipment issues with my intuition, and most of all have fun with my friends and family."

At all of 29 Mancuso is an old pro of the sport. Bill Marolt, who heads the US Ski Association, called her a "seasoned veteran" in a rallying call to the rest of the team to "step up" in Vonn's absence. Mancuso turns 30 in March after what will be her fourth Olympics. It would be easy to write her off. Except Mancuso has been here before.

Her career has had as many ups and downs as the Rosa Khutor resort where the 2014 ski races will be held in the mountains rising above Sochi. A keen surfer, she has a plethora of off-piste interests; her own website describes her as a "fitness guru, role model, underwear model, philanthropist, brand ambassador and free spirit". Not, then, your usual single-tracked professional sportsperson of the 21st century.

"If you're not paying attention to me, you're just missing out. I've got a great story," she told the Denver Post ahead of the Vancouver Games. And she has; she started racing aged eight, during the time her father was in prison, serving four years for running a $140m drug-smuggling ring. She was an Olympian at the age of 17 and now has eight major medals, three in the Olympics and five from the world championships.

Her skiing has fluctuated hugely but no American woman has won more major medals. Mancuso's record smacks of a big-moment performer, as if her broader life distracts her until the rest of the world is watching and then it is time to get serious.

She has gone into the last two Games considered at best an outside bet. Her form was poor in the lead up to Turin in 2006 and nobody expected her to get on to the podium, let alone stand alone on top of it with a gold medal for the giant slalom slung around her neck. Ahead of Vancouver she had not made a World Cup podium for two years, so again minimal expectation accompanied her to the start gate. She followed Vonn to downhill silver and took another in the combined.

Across her 15-year career in the World Cup she has only won seven races – Vonn has 59 victories. Last year she claimed bronze in the Super G at the world championships. Again, to many, it was a surprise. Perhaps it should not have been. It was her eighth major championship medal, one more than Vonn.

"I encourage everyone to remember there is a bright side to every situation!" was how Mancuso signed off her announcement last month that she was taking a break. "The universe wants us to smile."

Behind the smiles of a woman who likes to snack on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in between training runs is, come big-game time, an arch-competitor possessed with an unshakeable self-belief.

This is a tough sport – Marion Rolland and Tessa Worley respectively the current downhill and giant slalom world champions are injured and out of Sochi. With Vonn also absent, the field is open, a podium looking for an owner and in this game probably not a careful one.

Ready to shine in Sochi: Three others to watch at the 2014 Games

Alex Ovechkin

There is enormous pressure on home athletes to produce gold in return for the billions invested in the Games, and no one is under more pressure than the 28-year-old from Moscow. The Washington Capitals player captains Russia in the event they want to win above all others, the ice hockey

Sara Takanashi

The 17-year-old will make her Olympic debut along with her sport. For the first time women's ski jumping is included and the diminutive Japanese schoolgirl – she is 4ft 11in – is a strong favourite, having dominated the season's World Cup.

Eve Muirhead

Last year the 23-year-old from Perth became the youngest female skip to win a world title as she led her Scottish team to victory over Sweden. Goes into her second Olympics with every chance of claiming a rare British winter gold.

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