GIRDWOOD, Alaska (AP) – Julia Mancuso capped a weekend of national championship skiing that featured blowing snow and blowing volcanic ash with a victory Monday in the giant slalom at the U.S. Alpine Championships.

Mancuso was second in both runs to finish in a combined 2 minutes, 12.62 seconds, and it was enough to squeak by 21-year-old Megan McJames, who finished in 2:12.77.

It was Mancuso’s 11th national title. McJames and Keely Kelleher, who finished third in 2:14.06, made their first appearances on the awards podium at the national championships.

For skiers used to skiing on hard, icy courses on the World Cup circuit, the soft, snowy course was a challenge. Early racers down the mountain dug ruts that had to be negotiated by leaders skiing in reverse order of their first-run finish.

“It was like setting some gates up in one of those mogul fields,” Mancuso said.

Groomers had to deal with 70 inches of snow that fell in seven days, including 17 in the previous 24 hours. That was more than enough to bury ash that blew in from Mount Redoubt on Saturday afternoon.

The European courses in the World Cup circuit inject water onto the mountains to create a hard, smooth, icy surface. When it snows, groomers simply push the fresh snow out of the way, Mancuso said.

“Here it’s just normal grooming, so it’s really tough to get a hard surface underneath,” Mancuso said.

The skis function better on the harder pack, she said, but it was the same for all the women.

“It’s still a race,” she said. “There can be all conditions. It’s going to be tough for the girls in the back. It gets bumpy.”

Mancuso started the second run 0.37 seconds behind veteran Sarah Schleper, who was making a bid to win her second giant slalom national championship a decade after taking the gold in 1998 at Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Schleper finished second in the slalom Sunday and almost won the event with a fast second run. On Monday, she was determined not to fall behind in the first run.

“I tried to take a little lead in the first run today and hopefully maintain that,” she said after the first run.

She was threatening to grab first place from Mancuso when she fell and tumbled on the lower half of the course. United States Ski and Snowboard Association spokesman Doug Haney said Schleper suffered a concussion. She was taken off the mountain in a sled.

McJames was third after the first run. She said she had to concentrate in the tough conditions.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It was pretty bumpy, but I think everyone out here did their best and put it down as well as they could, so I’m happy that I came out with a good result today.”

For Mancuso, who also picked up a first-place medal in the alpine combined by having the fastest overall times in the downhill and slalom on Saturday and Sunday, she ended her 2009 racing on an upbeat note after a season with few appearances on the podium.

“I’m psyched,” she said “It’s always good to pick up a national championship and I’m always excited to win a race. It’s probably the first race I’ve won all year.”

Preparing for next winter’s Olympics, she said, she will be starting a long summer of hard training, both off and on snow. She may also dial back her non-skiing activities.

“Just a little more cautious,” she said. “I like to do lots of outdoor sports, so I might take it back a notch,” she said. “I spend most of my time in Hawaii, so surfing. I’ll try to be a little bit safer and avoid injuries.”

A skiing injury to her back hampered offseason training last year and she’s looking forward to getting healthy.

“It was a good nationals for me,” she said. “My goal when I come to nationals is to be on the podium and try to win, but it’s always a long season and a lot of time spent in Europe, and it can be kind of draining, so I just try to come here and have fun.”

The last event of the championships, the men’s giant slalom, is scheduled for Tuesday.


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