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Mancuso seeks to defuse Vonn situation after race

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Years from now, when Julia Mancuso reflects on these Olympics, she will always have two shiny silver medals to make her smile — and a whirlwind, sour final 24 hours to make her wince.

A simple account of the way her Vancouver Games ended must include Thursday's eighth-place finish behind Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany in the giant slalom, an event Mancuso won four years ago at Turin.

Ah, but there is so much more:

The public fascination with exactly how much ill will there might be between Mancuso and U.S. teammate Lindsey Vonn. The dashing of Mancuso's medal chances in the giant slalom when her first run Wednesday was interrupted because she left the starting gate not knowing that Vonn, of all people, was crashing ahead of her. And the deep sadness that came later Wednesday, when she learned that a friend from back home in Squaw Valley, Calif., professional free skier C.R. Johnson, had died at age 26 in a fall at the resort.

"It's been a long couple weeks," Mancuso said.

Begin with the topic that's produced the most buzz on the mountain, one Mancuso insisted Thursday has "been taken a little out of proportion": her feelings toward lifelong rival Vonn.

On Wednesday, Vonn said she was "hurt" by "some negative things" Mancuso had said about her at these Olympics. She was referring to Mancuso's comments about Vonn drawing a lot of attention from the media and within the U.S. team.

Mancuso sought to defuse the situation Thursday, calling two-time World Cup overall champion Vonn "the greatest female American skier we've had" and making sure everyone realized she did not blame Vonn for their dual misfortune in the giant slalom.

"It's just funny the way the universe works. I saw Lindsey after, and I know that she felt really sorry, and you know it's really not her fault, of course," Mancuso said. "And so, for that to be sort of out there — that had nothing to do with anything about our relationship. Like I said before, the way that it came across, that it was a media attention fight or something like that, is just ridiculous."

When the pair crossed paths later Wednesday, Vonn apologized for the way things went on the hill.

As for the interest in their off-slope interaction, Vonn's husband, Thomas, said Thursday: "I think it's kind of silly. They have a cordial relationship. They're competitors on the hill and want to beat each other. But they leave it on the hill. When they're off the hill, they're fine. I don't see a problem there."

Here's the way another U.S. skier, Sarah Schleper of Vail, Colo., assessed the Vonn-Mancuso dynamic after finishing 14th in the giant slalom, "Well, they're just both really passionate about ski racing and being on the top of the podium. They love winning, and I mean, we all want to be there, too."

Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, came to the Olympics as a focal point because of all of her recent success, including 31 World Cup race wins, the most by a U.S. woman. She was a key part of NBC's promotional campaign and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's Vancouver preview issue.

Mancuso, meanwhile, was not viewed as a serious medal favorite heading to Whistler, having not been on a World Cup podium in two years, in part because of hip surgery and back problems. Asked last week about being under the radar, she said: "I think that our ski team, in general, deserved a little more attention, because a lot of the media was all about Lindsey, and I think that we have a lot of great girls on our ski team."

Now Mancuso's Olympics are over, because she declined to take a spot in Friday's slalom. Vonn will compete, trying to add to her downhill gold and super-g bronze while wearing a plastic brace to protect the pinkie she broke in Wednesday's tumble.

What the 25-year-old Mancuso had a hard time comprehending Thursday was the way the defense of her Olympic GS title went by the wayside. Vonn's wipeout Wednesday happened right as Mancuso was kicking out of the starting gate with a shorter-than-usual interval because of driving snow and dense fog; officials were hoping to squeeze everyone in before the course deteriorated too much.

"I can't say, honestly, it was fair, but there's nothing I can do about that," Mancuso said Thursday. "And I know that everyone here at the Olympics is doing the best that they can, and safety always comes first, so I really just had to do my best with the circumstances."

Mancuso was forced to stop her race, make her way down to the finish area, then hitch a ride on a snowmobile back to the top. Even that was an adventure: About halfway up, she was told the snowmobile couldn't go all the way. Mancuso managed to talk her way past that roadblock, only to get to the start area and realize she didn't have her credential. That issue resolved, too, a weary Mancuso finally got her first run in, but was 18th, 1.30 seconds behind the leader.

Bad weather forced the second run to be postponed, and while Mancuso turned in Thursday's third-best time, it was nowhere near enough to contend for a medal to add to those she earned in the downhill and super-combined. Instead, she finished 0.55 second behind Rebensburg's two-run time of 2 minutes, 27.11 seconds. Slovenia's Tina Maze won the silver, and Austria's Elisabeth Goergl the bronze.

"I can't wonder 'What if?'" Mancuso said. "It's just really a crazy situation that I can't even wrap my head around."

Even more difficult to deal with was what happened to her pal Johnson, a former X Games competitor who fell and hit the back of his helmet on rocks while skiing at Squaw Valley on Wednesday. She recalled hanging out with him at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and spoke glowingly of his love for skiing and pushing limits.

As she spoke, Mancuso's voice cracked, and tears welled in her eyes. She paused a couple of times, turning away from reporters to compose herself.

"Coming here today for me, after everything yesterday, was just, like, 'Go out there and love skiing,'" she said.

Draining as Wednesday and Thursday were, Mancuso chose to concentrate on the happier events of her third Winter Games while she prepared to head home.

"Really, it's better than I could have imagined," she said. "After winning my gold medal in Torino, at the end of 2006, it was like, 'You know what? This is what ... my career's all about, is going to the Olympics and performing under the Olympic (spotlight). There were some unlucky things happening with my other races, but I really feel like sometimes, in ski racing especially, luck just has to be on your side."

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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.