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Spotlight falls on U.S. teen Mikaela Shiffrin and slalom

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Mikaela Shiffrin, the favorite in Friday's women's slalom, is now in the same spot Ted Ligety was in.

Except that she is not a 29-year-old veteran, like Ligety. She is 18, and if she wins she will become the youngest woman to win an Olympic slalom.

Oh, and she would also have to beat at least three living legends in the sport.

The women's slalom will be the first alpine ski race at the Sochi Games to be held at night, under flood lights.

And Shiffrin, the teen slalom queen from Eagle-Vail, Colo., would seem to be ready to step into the spotlight.

Journalists are still talking about her surreal press-conference performance before a large gathering of reporters last Saturday, the day after she arrived in Sochi. If there were those who believed the teenager would melt under Olympic pressure, some of them might have been dissuaded by her mature, calm demeanor — or by her revelation that she had done all sorts of visualization about the Olympics, including writing down potential press-conference questions, and answers.

She's also visualized herself in the Olympic slalom start hut — as the favorite. And on the podium.

This sort of preparation has paid off so far. At 18, she has as many World Cup victories — seven — as four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, and two fewer than former Olympic champion Picabo Street.

Under a lot of pressure to back up her World Cup wins at last year's world championships in Schladming, Austria, Shiffrin did just that. She was third in the first run, then skied aggressively in the second run and nipped Austria's Michaela Kirchgasser by 0.22 seconds, becoming the youngest woman to win a world championship in alpine skiing since 1985.

To win Friday, she basically has to strike out a Murderer's Row of skiing.

•Austria's Marlies Schild, who has a record 35 career slalom victories. She's 32 and has two Olympic slalom medals — but not a gold, and this might be her last chance.

•Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, 29, a former World Cup overall champion, the defending Olympic champion in slalom and a two-time medalist (gold in super-combined, silver in super-G) here in Sochi.

•Slovenia's Tina Maze, 30, the defending World Cup overall champion, who has two gold medals here (tied for gold in downhill, gold in giant slalom) and is one of six women all-time to win World Cup races in all five events.

There have been six World Cup slalom races so far this season. Shiffrin has won three of them. Schild has two, and Sweden's Frida Hansdotter took the other.

Ligety, facing similar pressure to win Wednesday in the men's giant slalom, came through with a monster first run that all but clinched the gold medal.

Now it is Shiffrin's turn.

She came to Sochi and was immediately asked what she thought of the then-disappointing results by the U.S. ski team — just the one bronze medal, by Mancuso.

She replied in part, "No matter how good you are, you can't take your foot off the gas."

Since then, the team has added a gold by Ligety, a silver by Andrew Weibrecht and a bronze by Bode Miller.

Shiffrin, in her first Olympic race, got close to a medal, finishing fifth, 0.23 seconds away from a bronze in the giant slalom — an event in which she is getting better but was not a big favorite going in.

But on Friday she will be favorite. A gold by her would give the U.S. team two golds and four overall — all without Lindsey Vonn, who if healthy would have been picked to medal in two races.

That would be considered pretty successful.

So there's a lot riding on her 18-year-old shoulders.

Up to this point in her brief career, she's handled pressure situations with aplomb.

And she's for sure visualized this one.

"I've been here before in my head for sure," she said. "To everybody this is my first Olympics, but to me, it's my thousandth."
 

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