By Philip O'Connor
Jan 20 (Reuters) - American slalom specialist Mikaela Shiffrin is a woman in a hurry.
Just 18 years old, the teenager already is a World Cup winner and world champion in slalom with an Olympic medal well within her sights.
And with compatriot Lindsey Vonn missing the Games due to injury, more attention will turn to the Colorado-born Shiffrin.
"It's nice to sing my national anthem a couple of races before the Olympics," Shiffrin told the Team USA website (http://alpine.usskiteam.com/) after a recent World Cup slalom victory in Flachau, Austria.
"Hopefully I can sing it again in Sochi."
The night-time Austrian victory, her second World Cup win in a row and third of the season, makes her a hot favorite for gold in Sochi with a great deal of media attention and high expectations from American fans.
For most athletes that level of attention might be a burden, but Shiffrin has shown little sign so far that she is not able to cope with the pressure.
"If I'm a medal contender, then that just means that I'm going to try to contend for a medal," the level-headed Shiffrin told reporters after her victory in Austria.
"(But) when my nana tells me that my ski racing is keeping her alive, I think that's more pressure than any race."
She began taking the skiing world by storm when she made her World Cup debut in 2011, two days before her 16th birthday.
A few weeks later she was crowned the U.S. slalom champion, the youngest-ever American to win a national title.
In addition to her seemingly effortless style and relative youth, she has shown a steely toughness in her ability to stage a comeback.
Opponents who think she is out of contention after a modest first run do so at their peril.
In December 2011, for example, at age 16, she started 40th and lost a shin guard on the first run of the World Cup slalom competition in Lienz, Austria.
Few expected what happened next as she bounced back in the second run, posting the fastest time to snatch third place and her first podium finish.
It was a portent of what was to come two years later.
Battling it out with Slovenia's Tina Maze for the 2013 slalom title at the World Cup finals in Lenzerheide, Shiffrin's modest first effort left her 1.17 seconds behind her rival.
She pulled out all the stops in a thrilling, near-perfect second run to take the lead. Maze could not match her and Shiffrin secured her fourth World Cup victory of the season to claim the overall crown.
Such feats have not gone unnoticed, and only the fame and popularity of Vonn have protected her from the full-on media onslaught.
She has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and been voted Colorado's Athlete of the Year alongside Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Despite all the pressure to be America's next golden girl, Shiffrin seems unfazed, saying "It's really cool to be a favorite going into the Olympics.
"Imagine being in my position. I'm 18 and I'm going to the Olympics. It's one of my dreams come true."
But surely Shiffrin is setting her sights a little higher than just showing up. (Editing by Gene Cherry)