SESTRIERE, Italy — Julia Mancuso doesn't need a tiara anymore. She has an Olympic crown.
The 21-year-old Californian earned a stunning victory in the giant slalom on a snowy, foggy Friday to salvage a disappointing Olympics for the U.S. women in their final Alpine event of the Torino Games.
Mancuso gave the American women their first Olympic Alpine medal since Picabo Street's gold in the super-G at the 1998 Nagano Games.
"It was perfect timing," U.S. women's coach Patrick Riml said. "She skied beautifully."
Mancuso often skis in the slalom with a costume jewelry tiara instead of a helmet — a good luck charm from her coach. She wore a white helmet in the longer, faster giant slalom, but she didn't need much luck, anyway.
With two strong runs in awful weather, Mancuso had a combined time of 2 minutes, 9.19 seconds, .67 seconds faster than silver medalist Tanja Poutiainen of Finland. With a big second run, Anna Ottosson of Sweden took the bronze, 1.14 seconds behind.
"My first thought was, 'Oh, my gosh! This is unbelievable!' " Mancuso said. "It was going through my head: 'Tonight, big party!"'
Boyfriend Steven Nyman of Orem, also a U.S. Olympian, already had left Italy and wasn't there to celebrate with her.
Janica Kostelic of Croatia, the defending Olympic champion, did not race because of illness.
Mancuso's medal was the second for the Americans in Alpine skiing, both gold. Park City's Ted Ligety won the men's combined last week.
Anja Paerson, winner of three medals in the Torino Games and the giant slalom favorite, was second to Mancuso after the first run but skied poorly in the second and finished sixth.
"I'm happy," Paerson said. "This has been a good Olympics. It was always a tough fight with the snow. I really wanted a medal today, but you can't have it all."
Mancuso had never before led after the first run of a World Cup or other major event.
She took an aggressive line and lived on the edges of her skis down the rock-hard course and held a .18-second lead over Paerson entering the second run.
"That was my first time," she said. "I was very nervous in the start, but I just had to bring it in."
Skiing last among the 30 contenders in the second run, Mancuso negotiated a tight, slightly shortened course she could barely see because of snow so heavy that course workers hurried to repaint the blue boundary lines as each skier passed.
"She's been getting ready to do this since she was 3 years old on the 'Mighty Mites' ski team in Squaw Valley," her mother, Andrea Mancuso, said. "Just watch her. You can see she loves to ski."
Mancuso's time of 1:08.30 was second-fastest of the last run, just 0.01 seconds behind Ottosson.
"I was a little bit surprised at the finish," Mancuso said. "It was a slow feeling, but I guess everyone felt that way."
Mancuso, from Olympic Valley, Calif., won bronze medals in the giant slalom and super-G at last year's world championships and has three top-three finishes on the World Cup circuit this year. But she has yet to win a World Cup event and is ninth in the World Cup giant slalom standings.
"I was just ready now," Mancuso said. "I don't know why."
After she finished, she thrust her fists into the air in triumph, held up one of her skis and kissed it.
Her father, Ciro Mancuso, said he last saw his daughter on Wednesday and she was upset "with the way things have been going."
"She knew today she had to do it," her father said. "This was going to be her last chance."
In the stands, she was cheered on by a big family contingent that included grandparents from both sides. Sister April, who fixed Julia breakfast, screamed with delight.
The United States had not won a medal in the women's giant slalom since Diann Roffe's silver at the 1992 Albertville Games; the last U.S. giant slalom gold went to Debbie Armstrong in Sarajevo in 1984.
As expected, Kostelic did not race, ending her Olympics with a gold and a silver. She has six medals, four of them gold, the most for a female Alpine skier in Olympic history.
"She's in a good mood, but needs much more strength for the giant slalom," said Croatia ski team spokesman Ozren Mueller. "She's not upset. She's looking forward to the rest of the season and the World Cup."
Paerson could have equaled Kostelic's record six medals with a top-three giant slalom finish. She already had three medals in these games, including gold in Wednesday's slalom, and she won a silver and a bronze in Salt Lake City four years ago.