KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – American teen Mikaela Shiffrin took a major step toward winning the first Olympic medal of an extraordinarily promising career, taking a commanding lead after the first of two slalom runs Friday afternoon at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
Shiffrin, an 18-year-old from Eagle-Vail, Colo., skied calmly and confidently in finishing the first run in 52.62 seconds, nearly half a second faster than German champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who sits in second.
“I’m not really that worried about the lead right now,” Shiffrin said. “Actually, five-tenths isn’t even that much. It’s a two-run race.”
The top 30 finishers from the first run are inverted for the second run, which is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. EST. Shiffrin will ski 30th, and the winner is the skier with the fastest combined time.
Shiffrin’s mother Eileen said after the first run that Mikaela had developed a bit of a cold after Tuesday’s giant slalom, which was contested almost entirely in a cold rain. So she spent the days leading up to the slalom largely resting — and trying to remain calm prior to an event in which she is the clear favorite.
“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.”
Though it rained throughout the Mzymta River valley Friday morning, precipitation had stopped by the time the race began. Shiffrin, skiing sixth, had to overcome the lead set by Hoefl-Riesch, the defending gold medalist in the slalom. She said by the time she reached the starting gate, she was calm.
“I was pretty relaxed,” Shiffrin said. “Thank goodness, because there were a couple points throughout the day where I was like,” and she started breathing quickly, mimicking hyperventilating. ” ‘Oh my god, here we go.’ But no, I was relaxed in the start, and that was awesome.”
And it led to an awesome start in a discipline in which the U.S. struggles. 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 is 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. Austria’s Marlies Schild, 32, has two slalom wins this season; her sister, Bernadette, is also competitive. Hoefl-Riesch is looking for a third medal at the Sochi Games to go with her gold in super combined and silver in the super-G.
But Hansdotter is 1.43 seconds back of Shiffrin after the first run. Marlies Schild was a bit better, but is still 1.34 seconds back. Hoefl-Riesch is 0.49 of a second behind Shiffrin, with Slovenia’s Tina Maze in third, 0.67 back. Bernadette Schild is fourth, 0.79 seconds back.
Shiffrin made her Olympic debut Tuesday by placing fifth in the giant slalom, a discipline in which she has two World Cup podium finishes but has never won. Though she said prior to that race that her intention was to win two medals here, this is the event in which she had the most realistic chance. And in a few hours, she’ll know whether that chance results in a medal.