KRASNAYA POLYANA – Before the Olympics began, Mikaela Shiffrin envisioned the events of Friday night: skiing under the lights, the Caucasus Mountains around her, an Olympic crowd at the base of the hill. She envisioned, too, everything that could go wrong in a slalom race, a missed gate or a caught rut. But she always put those behind, and won gold.
Friday night, all those teenage dreams became quite real, and Shiffrin became the first U.S. Alpine women’s skier to win gold at the Sochi Olympics, taking the women’s slalom with a combined time of 1:44.54, enough to beat Austria’s Marlies Schild by 0.53 seconds. Kathrin Zettel, also of Austria, won bronze.
The victory completes a swift ascent for Shiffrin, the 18-year-old from Eagle-Vail, Colo., who combines sublime gifts with preternatural drive and an unrelenting willingness to train. With her 19th birthday next month, she became the youngest women’s skier ever to win an Olympic slalom.
Following the afternoon first run, Shiffrin led by 0.49 of a second over Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, with Slovenia’s Tina Maze another 0.18 back. Her mother, Eileen, said she was battling a cold likely caught during Tuesday’s giant slalom, which was contested almost entirely in the rain.
She also had to absorb the idea that this was her best event, and she was the favorite.
“In general it’s nerve-wracking,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “It just is. But she seemed in a good place when she went up there. But it’s funny. Nerves are funny. You can be fine one second and awful the next second. You never know when it’s going to creep in there.”
Shiffrin, though, skied beautifully in the first run. If she had any nerves, she left them in the starting gate.
“I was pretty relaxed,” she said. “Thank goodness, because there are a couple points throughout the day where I was like,” and she mimicked a panicked breathing, as if she was hyperventilating. “ ‘Oh my god, here we go.’ But no, I was relaxed in the start, and that was awesome.”
It led to an awesome start in a discipline in which U.S. skiers have struggled. While the American Alpine ski racers have been among the most dominant in recent years – taking 12 medals between the Vancouver and Sochi Games – the slalom has escaped them. The last U.S. slalom medalists were brothers Phil and Steve Mahre, who earned gold and bronze, respectively, in 1984. The last American woman to win a medal in slalom, Alpine’s shortest but most technical discipline, was Barbara Cochran in 1972.
Cochran grew up in Vermont, not far from where Shiffrin went to school at Burke Mountain Academy, which preps elite ski racers. Shiffrin’s status as the favorite here, even at 18, was earned. She won the season-long slalom title on the World Cup circuit a year ago, and she leads the standings this season. She has seven slalom victories over the last two seasons, and she won gold at last year’s World Championships.
But ski racing is a fickle pursuit, and favorites are subjected to so many factors, weather and course setup most prominent among them. Plus, there was the competition. Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, second in the World Cup standings, won the most recent World Cup slalom race earlier this month in Slovenia, a race in which Shiffrin placed seventh. Schild, 32, has two slalom wins this season. And Hoefl-Riesch won slalom gold four years ago in Vancouver, and was looking for a third medal at the Sochi Games to go with her gold in super combined and silver in the super-G.
But after the first run, Schild was sixth, 1.34 seconds back. Hansdotter struggled to eighth, 1.43 seconds back. Schild’s younger sister Bernadette actually joined Hoefl-Riesch and Maze as the only racers within a second of Shiffrin.