KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, with the poise of someone 10 years older and the talent level of perhaps only herself, successfully made history Friday night at the Sochi Olympics.
Shiffrin, 18, of Eagle-Vail, Colo., won the gold medal in the women's slalom, beating, among others, a trio of legendary skiers – 29-year-old Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, 30-year-old Tina Maze of Slovenia, and 32-year-old Marlies Schild of Austria.
Shiffrin was favored, after taking hold of the slalom discipline on the World Cup circuit in the past year (winning three of six slalom races this season) and winning a world championship last year in Schladming, Austria, becoming the youngest woman to win an alpine skiing world title since 1985.
But she still had to do it, in a second run held at night, under the lights, in the spotlight.
With a big lead going into the second run, she survived a near fall about halfway down the course in a moment that caused who knows how many gasps from those who saw it live or on TV.
"It was a pretty crazy moment there," Shiffrin said. "I went out of the start, and I was like, 'I'm going fast.' Then I went out of that flush and was like, 'I'm not gonna make it. I'm not gonna make it.' I threw on a hockey stop right there. That was a little bit tough.
"It scared me half to death."
She avoided a fall, though, and finished with a two-run time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds, beating silver medalist Schild by 0.53 seconds and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel, also of Austria, by 0.81 seconds.
Hoefl-Riesch finished fourth and Maze eighth.
Shiffrin becomes the youngest woman to win an Olympic slalom and the first U.S. woman to win the slalom at the Olympics since Barbara Cochran took the gold 42 years ago at the 1972 Winter Games.
U.S. women's slalom coach Roland Pfeifer thought for a moment the gold medal was gone when Shiffrin nearly fell.
"I thought, 'It's over,' " he said. "Sometimes Mikaela for some reason, when she's really hammering it, she gets in the back seat a little bit. That was brutal. I can't describe how I felt."
The morning of the race, though, Pfeifer was convinced Shiffrin was ready.
"She was really confident," he said. "She was saying, 'I'm going to win this thing. I'm going to do the same thing (Ted) Ligety did. I'm the world champion, and I'm going to do it.'"
Shiffrin had the fastest first-run time of a Murderer's Row of slalom aces on a cold, overcast Friday afternoon in the Caucasus Mountains.
Shiffrin's smooth, fluid run of 52.62 seconds beat the defending Olympic champion, Hoefl-Riesch, by 0.49 seconds, and the defending World Cup overall champion, Maze, by 0.67 seconds.
Schild, the greatest woman slalom skier in history, with 35 World Cup wins and two Olympic medals, finished way back (1.34 seconds behind Shiffrin) in the first run.
Shiffrin was in a similar spot as U.S. teammate Ted Ligety was in after the first run of the giant slalom Wednesday. Ligety nursed his big lead, ran conservatively in the second run and claimed the gold.
Shiffrin's lead was not quite as large as Ligety's was, though.
In the second run, after Hoefl-Riesch and Maze couldn't post fast times, she took a 1.34-second lead over Schild, the leader with just Shiffrin to go, into the start hut.
She started out smoothly but caught an edge and leaned the wrong way, looking like she might fall. But she kept it together and was good on the last pitch to nail down the victory.
"Relaxed? Yeah, I was pretty relaxed actually, thank goodness," she said in a brief interview after the first run. "There were a couple points throughout the day where I was like, 'Oh my God, here we are,' but I was relaxed at the start and that was awesome.
"Mostly my plan was to just move my feet a little bit faster than everybody else, and I guess I moved them about five tenths faster."
Shiffrin's mother, Eileen, a ski racer herself who helped develop Mikaela into a top racer, said her daughter has developed a cold — a common condition among ski racers — but seemed to be handling the pressure of the day.
"It's nerve-racking. It just is," she said. "She seemed in a good place when she went up there. But nerves are funny. You can be fine the next second and awful the next second. You never know when it's going to creep in there. You can't let it creep in there."
She also said her daughter benefited from her earlier race in Sochi – a giant slalom, in which Shiffrin finished fifth.
"Looking back on it she was super happy how she did," her mother said. "And then she heard (U.S. teammate and super-combined bronze medalist) Julia Mancuso was throwing her some kudos and saying, 'Good for that kid for doing that, for skiing well on that course.' And I think that was really good for her to hear. For sure, that was a confidence booster."