ST. MORITZ, Switzerland -- Healthier and happier, Julia Mancuso believes her life and skiing are heading in the right direction.
Mancuso won two silver medals at the Vancouver Olympics in February, a stunning comeback after some difficult seasons. Now the 26-year-old Californian feels ready to regain the top-three spot in the World Cup rankings she last held in 2007.
"Top three overall is a big goal," Mancuso told The Associated Press at St. Moritz, where she competes in a giant slalom on Sunday. "Right now, I'm just really comfortable with who I am and the place I am in life."
Her renewed confidence comes from good race results, and knowing old back injuries have healed while new ski equipment is working.
Then there's her blossoming relationship with Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal, whose three medals in Vancouver was another feel-good Olympics story.
"When everything is going well in your life, or you're in love, and things are working well, then it's definitely an asset," Mancuso said.
"Me and Aksel have been friends for a long time and so it's nice just to be really comfortable in the relationship."
Svindal, an Olympic super-G champion and two-time overall World Cup winner, probably is the best-liked skier on the circuit. He and Mancuso share an easygoing outlook, helping her focus during "a really great summer's training."
"He wants to be strong and works out hard," she explained. "But there's no real, I guess, rush to do anything. Whatever the day brings is what you should do, and how you feel."
The workouts in Hawaii were more about quality than quantity. They fueled Mancuso's appetite for winter racing. That was a welcome change after her enthusiasm had waned, especially during a 2008-09 season wrecked by back pain.
"I wasn't really enjoying traveling so much, and spending all my time on the road," Mancuso acknowledged. "Mentally, I had to get back in the game, too."
This winter things were different.
"I felt like I was ready," she said in the Swiss Alps resort, the first stop in a three-month trek across Europe after a brief swing through North America. "I'm excited that it's started. It's even more exciting to see the results I'm getting from all the hard work I'm putting in."
Four top-10 finishes in six races included third place last Sunday in a super-G at Lake Louise, Alberta, behind the undisputed big two, Lindsey Vonn and Maria Riesch.
Mancuso usually peaks late in the season, and this was her first pre-Christmas podium finish in three years and 21st in World Cup races. It also was reward for a fresh, more analytical approach to racing, and on new Voelkl skis.
"I feel like I've cruised along too much in the World Cup and ... that I didn't put pressure on myself every race," Mancuso said. "I know that the girls to beat -- Maria, Lindsey, Lizzie Goergl -- are skiing well this year too. I know that I can push them and try to sneak in there but I still have a little bit to go."
Mancuso, who took 2006 Olympic gold in giant slalom, knows she must score well in that event to challenge for third place.
Though Mancuso's life is sweet for now, one sour note is that best friend Chemmy Alcott can't be with her. The British skier's season ended in Lake Louise when she broke her right leg in a crash during training.
"She's like a sister for me," said Mancuso, emotions quickly surfacing. "She missed a part of one season a couple of years ago and I remember being so sad. The worst part is just not knowing what happens when your friend gets helicoptered off the hill, and you just have no idea how bad (the injury) is."
Mancuso spent last holiday season with Alcott but has different plans this time. Following a Dec. 21 slalom in Courchevel, France -- two days after the men's circuit pauses in Italy -- Mancuso heads for Norway to meet the Svindals.
"It's a nice trip to have somewhere to go for Christmas," she said cheerily. "I get to see him every once in a while."