KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — She was slow — slow-twisting down the women’s slalom course with a big lead when suddenly, as if struck by some unseen reflex mallet, Mikaela Shiffrin’s left leg shot skyward.
“I thought it was over,” said U.S. women’s slalom coach Roland Pfeifer.
The American teenager, who said she’d envisioned such a spill before arriving here to best prepare for that possibility, somehow not only regained her balance but her pace and the rhythm crucial for maneuvering swiftly through the series of gates.
“That was scary,” she said. “I thought I was going off the course.”
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Seconds later, crouched low over skis, Shiffrin sailed over the finish line to become, at 18, the youngest slalom winner in Olympic history.
Ironically, her hair-raising victory came at the expense of her skiing idol. Austria’s Marlies Schild, whose 35 World Cup slalom wins are the most in history, held the two-run lead until Shiffrin’s second trip down the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center course.
Schild, 32, took the silver medal and her countrywoman, Kathrin Zettel, the bronze in the final women’s alpine event of these 2014 Winter Olympics.
With her win, the precocious Shiffrin put herself in position to come to the 2018 Games in South Korea as one of the American ski team’s best-known names.
The Coloradan, who became the youngest skier to win a World Championship in 2013 and led the World Cup standings in the event this season, lost time in the near-fall. But the 0.49-second lead she had on the field after the morning run gave her plenty of cushion.
Her combined time of 1:44.54 was 0.53 ahead of Schild’s, 0.81 in front of Zettel.
“That [the near-fall] was a pretty crazy moment there,” said Shiffrin. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.’ I threw on a hockey stop right there. That was a little bit tough. It scared me half to death.”
By winning her pet event, Shiffrin also became the first U.S. gold medal-winner in the slalom since Barbara Cochran in 1972.
Before the race, the extremely confident teenager had counseled her coach not to worry.
“I’m going to win this thing,” she told Pfeifer. “I’m going to do the same thing Ted Ligety [the giant slalom gold medalist] did. I’m the world champion, and I’m going to do it.”
She was true to her word in the morning run, her time of 52.62 providing her with a sizable lead over her most dangerous competitors.
Skiing just before the winner on a rare cold night in the Caucasus, veterans Maria Hoefl-Reisch and Tina Maze couldn’t get it going during their final run.
Shiffrin was 1.34 seconds up on then-leader Schild at the start of the second run, and was in control early. That reverie was interrupted midway down when she caught the edge and her leg shot up.
“It was a crazy moment,” she said.
She was calm afterward.
“This is why we’re all here, isn’t it?” she said. “I wish I could have an American flag on my back at every World Cup race because that’s an amazing feeling to know you’re representing not just yourself or your team or your family but your entire country.”