CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — The Wonder Woman suit. The red cape with a big "J'' printed on it. The plastic tiara.
Julia Mancuso's outlandish costume for her retirement ski race was a reminder of what made her so great: she was a free-spirited Californian who consistently beat the favorites when the stakes were the highest — just like a superhero.
Mancuso, the most successful female American skier at major championships with nine medals spread between Olympics and world championships, bid the sport an emotional goodbye in a World Cup downhill on Friday.
"Skiing is fun first and foremost and I hope that my career can inspire others to just have fun, especially as an underdog," Mancuso said after wiping away tears. "I don't think that I was ever looked at as the favorite and I always managed to do the best for me and ski the best for me and sometimes that brought gold medals, which was incredible.
"When everyone is rooting for someone else, it's OK to be you and to be free and to have fun and make your own version of success."
Slowed by persistent hip problems, Mancuso did not qualify for next month's Pyeongchang Olympics but will still go to South Korea as part of NBC's broadcast team.
Mancuso has battled hip issues throughout her career and missed two full seasons of competition following surgery after the 2014-15 season. She returned to competition last month but only completed three races — finishing outside the top 30 on each occasion.
"It's always been something looming in the back of my mind — what would be my cutoff to really decide," said Mancuso, who limps noticeably because of her hip problem. "It was really emotional after the first training run because it kind of hit me then that this was going to be too hard for my body."
Mancuso won gold in giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games, silver in downhill and combined at the 2010 Vancouver Games and bronze in combined at the 2014 Sochi Games. She also collected five medals at world championships and won seven World Cup races.
"In some of those years that was her best result. That's the amazing thing about the Olympic Games — the unknown outcome — and her ability to capitalize on that and turn it on," said Tiger Shaw, the president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. "It's extraordinary. There are not a lot of athletes who can do that — really amp it up that much when it counts."
Mancuso's care-free approach brought her fan support wherever she went.
"That's why she excelled in the big events with all of the pressure — because she loved the sport," said Chemmy Alcott, the retired British racer who is Mancuso's best friend. "And so she wasn't afraid to have that personality, to bring out the tiara."
For her retirement race, the 33-year-old Mancuso kissed her bib and threw it into the wind in the start house. Then she casually made her way down the Olympia delle Tofane course as the Wonder Woman theme song played on the public address system.
"I felt like the crazier I would dress, the less I would be emotional and cry," Mancuso said. "I had to pull out the super powers for today."
In the finish area, Lindsey Vonn and teammates sprayed Mancuso with champagne and carried her on their shoulders while the crowd cheered "Julia, Julia."
Vonn was also moved to tears by Mancuso's retirement. The pair of racers have competed against each other since they were 9.
"We weren't always the best of friends. We're very different. We're really exact opposites," Vonn said. "She's like free, 'Let's go surfing,' and I'm like hard-core, always focused all the time. We haven't always been very close, but because we pushed each other we both achieved a level of success that I don't think we would have had without each other.
"So I have a lot of my career to thank Julia for and I am very sad to see her go and I hope that she can get healthy and enjoy the next step of her life," Vonn said. "I'm definitely going to miss her and the whole team is going to miss her."
So what's next for Mancuso?
The skier recently married Dylan Fish, a manager at a surfing resort in Fiji, and splits her time between Squaw Valley, California, and Hawaii.
"I just like to have fun and I like to travel — and I love skiing. So anything that encompasses that," Mancuso said. "I like coaching, too. I'm very much open to any ideas. First and foremost, though, I'm really going to figure out what to do with my hip."
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