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As Ligety, Mancuso proved, upsets happen in skiing

This was one wager U.S. Alpine racer Julia Mancuso's ski technician was all too willing to lose, even if it involved a little public embarrassment.

Andrea Vianello made a bet with a U.S. coach that went something like this: If Mancuso captured a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Vianello would ski down the slope wearing only his boxer shorts.

Well, Mancuso won the giant slalom, and Vianello lost his pants.

The moral of this tale? There are no safe bets in Alpine skiing at the Winter Games.

Surprises happen. Quite often, too.

"It's really, really hard to predict what's going to happen," said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympics historian. "In Alpine, you make one slight slip and it's over — at least your goal of a medal. It's not a matter of choking or performing badly, it's just that's the way it is. Anybody can have the race of their lives."

Mancuso falls into that category. So, too, does teammate Ted Ligety, who won the combined in Turin despite never finishing better than 10th previously.

Men's downhill champion Antoine Deneriaz of France was another surprise. He arrived in Turin ranked 38th in the World Cup standings, had failed to finish better than seventh in a downhill all season and had not won a World Cup race since 2003.

Yet he won by the biggest margin in an Olympic men's downhill in 42 years, knocking off a field that included American Bode Miller and Austria's Hermann Maier.

"It's not track and field or swimming. It's far from guaranteed, even if you're the favorite," Ligety said. "It's hard to fully put those expectations on somebody."

All it takes is one rock, one slippery spot on the course, one bad turn to ruin a medal-winning run.

That's why Lindsey Vonn is not counting on anything, despite being touted as a can't-miss pick.

"I've just had the mind-set that I need to try to ski the best that I can every single day, and hopefully I can execute well on each day," Vonn said. "And hopefully I get a little luck as well."

Luck definitely plays a role. As do expectations — the fewer, it seems, almost the better.

"If you're ranked 14th in the world, nobody is expecting anything of you, nobody is interviewing you," Wallechinsky said. "If you finish 14th, nobody is going to get mad at you, nobody is going to say you failed. So you're relaxed, and you go for it. Sometimes going for it means falling. Sometimes it means crossing the line in first place."

Such was the case for American Debbie Armstrong, who won the giant slalom at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, as well as these surprise gold medalists:

—Bill Johnson was the first U.S. man to win a downhill title, also at Sarajevo.

—Francisco Fernandez Ochoa won the slalom in 1972 for Spain's first Winter Games gold.

—Leonhard Stock, an alternate heading into the 1980 Olympics, skied so well in practice he was put on Austria's team and won the downhill.

Who will it be this time?

Canada's Erik Guay in the super-G? This is, after all, his turf, his mountain. Or how about Olympic rookie Andrew Weibrecht of the United States in the downhill?

And don't discount experience.

This is the third Olympics for giant slalom specialist Denise Karbon of Italy, and she might be a relative unknown who rises up.

So, too, could Slovenia's Tina Maze in the slalom, or France's Ingrid Jacquemod shocking Vonn & Co. in the downhill, or Austria's Romed Baumann in the combined, or his teammate, Klaus Kroell, in the downhill or ...

"There's a bunch of guys that are super, super fast on a given day," Ligety said. "It's tough to pick out one dark horse."

Mancuso and Ligety were just a couple of 21-year-old kids when they won. They had no pressure, no presumptions, no publicity. This time, though, they arrive at Whistler Mountain as gold medalists.

"I try to approach ski racing with a calculated nonchalance, almost, because of the sport being so finicky in the sense that it's not guaranteed you're going to win," Ligety said. "Oftentimes, you have more failures than successes, and you just have to be able to brush those failures off and look forward to the next day and try to hammer again."

Ligety doesn't consider himself a favorite to win gold in the super-combined this time, instead tabbing Carlo Janka of Switzerland and Benjamin Raich of Austria as the ones to beat.

But Ligety does like his chances in the giant slalom, even with Raich and Switzerland's Didier Cuche — broken thumb and all — in the field.

Why? Because of the way he's skiing.

"Doing well in World Cup events before the Olympics is super-key," Ligety said. "It's so important in ski racing to have your confidence high. It allows you to push your limits even harder."

In that case, Vonn has little to fear. She's been almost unbeatable in the downhill this season — winning five of six World Cup events — and leads the overall standings.

"I think Lindsey has tremendously more pressure on her than I do, really," Ligety said. "She's put herself out there as that four- or five-medal threat. It's definitely going to be mounting on her. But she's definitely one of the skiers that can perform under that pressure."

Mancuso, however, finds herself in a similar spot as four years ago — not really considered a medal threat. She hasn't finished better than eighth this season.

To prepare for defending her crown in Vancouver, Mancuso planned to head to her hometown of Squaw Valley, Calif., for some training runs on a course named after her: Julia's Gold.

Very apropos.

So is this: Mancuso's last podium finish was two years ago in Whistler, taking third in a downhill.

It just might be time for her ski technician, Vianello, to make another wager. Yep, those pants of his could be at risk again.

"I would like to repeat that," Vianello said. "I will definitely do it if she gets any type of medal. That's a promise."

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AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf, Howard Fendrich and Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.