KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — As Mikaela Shiffrin reached the bottom of Friday night's slalom in Sochi, she couldn't look at the clock. The 18-year-old U.S. skiing phenom had visualized her ideal Olympic moment so many times, and reality suddenly felt nothing like it. She never saw the flub that could take it away, cruel momentum pulling her backward onto one ski. She never imagined her mother and coach gasping in unison, or saw the hundreds of people who all had one momentary, unified thought.
It was over.
This is what the bottom felt like. Shiffrin thought she had given away her ideal moment. But this is also one of the fortunate things about ski racing and the Olympics. You almost never live out your best moments in the way you imagine. Sometimes the ideal is found inside imperfection. Sometimes you go up on one ski, nearly crash and win anyway. And that's what happened: Shiffrin made a sizable mistake halfway through her run, fought back and became the youngest slalom gold medalist in the history of the Winter Games.
"Pretty terrifying," Shiffrin said afterward. "I'm like, 'All right, I'm just going to go win my first medal.' And then in the middle of the run, I'm like, 'Guess not.'"
Her slalom coach, Roland Pfeifer, called the moment "brutal."
"Roland and I definitely had a heart attack," said Shiffrin's mother, Eileen.
[Photos: Olympic crush: Mikaela Shiffrin]
If we've learned anything about Shiffrin in Sochi, it's that she battles. She did it in her first Olympic event, finishing fifth in giant slalom, despite a dreadful mix of rain, fog and snow. She did it again Friday, taking a solid .49-second lead after the first of two runs and almost blowing it all away in the middle of the course when she went up on one ski and nearly crashed.
It all happened in a millisecond, when Shiffrin's center of gravity shifted to the tails of her skis — getting into the "back seat," skiers call it — and one ski splayed into the air. But just as quickly as she seemed to lose her rhythm, she found it again, grinding hard in her turns. What nobody could be sure of was whether she had lost too much speed or time, or possibly both.
"I was like, 'No, don't do that. Do not give up. See this through,'" said Shiffrin, who also became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal in slalom since Barbara Cochran won gold at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics. "My whole goal was just to keep my skis moving."
She had the mistake under control coming out of her final split before the finish, and she managed to cross the line with an improbable .53-second margin over Austrian Marlies Schild, who won silver. Schild was one of the slalom skiers whom Shiffrin grew up idolizing, as well as Austrian Kathrin Zettel, who took bronze.
The words that Shiffrin's ski coaches delivered to her before she pushed off in the second race turned out to be prophetic: "Ski like you ski. You're good enough.'"
In the encyclopedia of coaching, such simplistic advice is high praise for an 18-year-old. There's little denying that Shiffrin has earned it. She came into the Olympics having already won seven World Cup races in slalom, and she is fast gaining elite traction in the giant slalom too. So much success so fast has seemed improbable. And whether she could duplicate it on an Olympic stage was anyone's guess.
Now everyone knows the answer. And while the "next Lindsey Vonn" label still seems extremely premature, it's worth noting that Vonn made her Olympic debut at 17 in 2002 … but didn't win her first gold until her third Games — the 2010 Vancouver Games. It's also clear that the U.S. ski program intends to bring Shiffrin along slowly from here. She'll be a slalom and giant slalom specialist for at least the near future, until she's ready to take the next step to the far more punishing speed disciplines.
Such patience isn't likely to extend to the media, who are already smitten with Shiffrin's demeanor and confidence — and now her Olympic results. It's not just the American media, either. And she's being compared not just to Vonn. One foreign reporter asked Shiffrin on Friday night what she thought of being considered a young Tina Maze, the 30-year-old Slovenian star who has won two gold medals in Sochi and is the No. 1-ranked skier in the world.
"People have said I'm the next Lindsey Vonn several times, and it's the same thing with being the young Tina Maze or whoever," Shiffrin said. "It's amazing to be compared to them. I'm really honored to have that comparison. But I also — I don't want to be the young Tina Maze or the next Lindsey Vonn. I want to be Mikaela Shiffrin. Hopefully, this gold medal is going to prove that."
Only time will tell. After Shiffrin leaves Sochi, she'll draw more attention than she's ever experienced, which will pull her in different directions. Pfeifer said Friday, "The volume she trains, she probably is 25 already [in ski years]." Now the question will be whether she can maintain that same focus and intensity after tasting Olympic success so quickly.
Pressed on that point, Shiffrin brushed off the notion that anything changes.
"I've just got to keep going," she said. "It's an amazing feeling to win an Olympic gold. It's going to be something that I chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life. But my life's not over yet."
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- Mikaela Shiffrin