Mikaela Shiffrin wins gold in Olympic slalom

Women's slalom medalists, from left, Austria's Marlies Schild (silver) and Kathrin Zettel (bronze) and United States' Mikaela Shiffrin (gold) celebrate at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Mikaela Shiffrin (center) won gold in the women’s slalom with Austria's Marlies Schild (left) taking silver and Kathrin Zettel the bronze.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — To prepare for her Olympic debut, Mikaela Shiffrin envisioned every scenario possible. Good, bad, mediocre. Prior to her first race, the 18-year-old American said, she had already been to the Winter Games “in my head.” So while everybody else saw it as her first Olympiad, Shiffrin felt as though it were her thousandth.

Still, all the visualization could not compare with what it felt like for real, not when Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic women’s slalom champion in history Friday.

Shiffrin posted a two-run time of 1:44.54, 0.53 ahead of Austria’s Marlies Schild, who used the fastest time in the second run (51.11 seconds) to take the silver medal with a 1:45.07.

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The bronze medal was won by Kathrin Zettel of Austria in a time of 1:45.35. Julia Ford of Holderness, N.H., finished in 24th position with a time of 1:52.87.

The victory makes Shiffrin the first American to win the Olympic women’s slalom since Barbara Ann Cochran, the Vermonter who took the title at the 1972 Sapporo Games. She is the first American to take slalom gold since Phil Mahre in 1984. And she is the fifth-youngest female gold medalist in Alpine skiing.

Translation: The present and future of US ski racing is Mikaela Shiffrin, a precocious talent who someday could surpass the achievements of Lindsey Vonn, an Olympic downhill gold medalist and 17-time World Cup title winner (four overall, 13 discipline titles).

The next question is: How long before she tackles the speed events and finds success there?

Shiffrin’s gold-medal performance started with the first run. With turns that seemed effortless and an upper body that appeared almost motionless, she finished in 52.62 seconds, reaching the halfway point of the competition with a 0.49-second advantage.

Out of the start house, Shiffrin chased early leader Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who won the super combined earlier in these Games. Hoefl-Riesch finished the first run in silver medal position, while Slovenia’s Tina Maze, who has two gold already in the Sochi Games, sat in third, 0.67 seconds behind Shiffrin.

Despite the gap on the rest of the field, Shiffrin played it cool in the finish area after the first run.

“I’m not really worried about the lead right now,” she said. “Actually, five-tenths isn’t even that much. It’s a two-run race.

“Mostly, my plan was to try to move my feet a little bit faster than everybody else. I guess I moved them about five-tenths faster.”

Shiffrin didn’t see anything particularly tricky about the Rosa Khutor course, though the gates were tighter than what she usually sees on the World Cup circuit. Typically, gates on a slalom course are spaced about 10-11 meters apart, but in the Olympic runs, the space is 9-10 meters. While Shiffrin said it was “not actually that big of a deal,” she clearly made a mental note of it and adjusted her rhythm down the slope.

It was yet another example of the attention to detail and poise under pressure that has made Shiffrin a ski racing prodigy.

After placing fifth in the giant slalom on a rain-soaked day earlier in the week, Shiffrin entered the technical slalom event as the gold-medal favorite. She won last year’s world slalom championship in Schladming, Austria. She also claimed the 2012-13 World Cup title, and she tops this season’s World Cup rankings.

While Shiffrin was nervous at times before Friday’s race, a calm came over her before the first run.

“I was pretty relaxed, actually,” said Shiffrin, a graduate of Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. “Thank goodness because there were a couple points throughout the day where I was like, ‘Oh, oh, oh my God, here we go.’

“I was relaxed in start and that was awesome.”

Shiffrin was looking forward to the second run under the lights because that would bring more consistent visibility. And it may have been a good omen that her first win on the World Cup circuit was a night slalom in December 2012.

And indeed, she handled the nighttime lights and the intense Winter Games spotlight like the seasoned Olympic veteran she was in her head.