KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Invoking the sort of recovery skills that Bode Miller made famous, American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin made Alpine skiing history Friday as the youngest ever winner of an Olympic slalom gold medal.
The 18-year-old Schiffrin showed impressive balance and agility on the Rosa Khotur course, somehow correcting herself in mid-air and landing her skis back between the gates midway through her second run.
Her speed — and lead from a near-flawless first run — then carried her down the steep hill to win in a two-leg combined time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds. Despite losing time with her mid-run acrobatics, Schiffrin still finished 0.53 seconds faster than Marlies Schild, the Austrian veteran who is one of Shiffrin’s childhood favorites.
“There I was, I’m like, ‘Grrreat. I’m just going to go win my first medal.’ And then in the middle of the run, I’m like, ‘Guess not.’” Schiffrin said. “So like, ‘No. Don’t do that. Do not give up. You see this through.’ My whole goal was to just keep my skis moving.”
After she crossed the finish line, Shiffrin hesitated to celebrate. She only seemed sure she had won when Schild and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel of Austria came across the finish area to raise her arms in triumph.
“Today was one of the most special days of my life,” said Shiffrin, who described her mid-run save as “pretty terrifying for me.”
At 32, Schild has now taken a slalom medal at three straight Olympics without winning gold.
“The dream died in the first run,” said Schild, who had been only sixth-fastest. “I won the silver medal in the second run and that’s great.”
Zettel trailed 0.81 behind Shiffrin and cried after securing her first Olympic medal following a series of near-misses at the past two Winter Games.
“Mikaela was absolute fantastic skiing, so she was the favorite and she nailed all of us,” Zettel said. “She is the real Olympic champion.”
Shiffrin claimed the record for youngest Olympic slalom champion, male or female, from Paoletta Magoni of Italy, who won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Games when she was 19.
The Vail, Co. native completed a full set of slalom honors — Olympic and world championship gold medals and a season-long World Cup discipline title — before her 19th birthday next month.
It so nearly disappeared in a dramatic second of skiing under the night-time floodlights.
“I thought, ‘It’s over,’” said Shiffrin’s slalom coach, Roland Pfeifer. “All of a sudden, she overdid it second run and that was brutal. I can’t describe how I felt.”
For the first time, Shiffrin sealed a big victory from the front instead of her usual aggressive second-run tactics to overhaul other racers.
Despite fighting a cold, Shiffrin built a 0.49 second advantage over Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany in late afternoon, using nimble footwork to deal with soft snow and a tight gate-setting on the steep course.
Hoefl-Riesch faded on her second time down to finish fourth in what is likely her Olympic farewell race, 1.19 behind Shiffrin and 0.38 outside the medals.
“It’s really emotional. No matter what’s going to happen, I had a great Olympic career,” Hoefl-Riesch said after her first run.
The 29-year-old German, who had been trying to win a record-tying fourth career Olympic gold medal, has been the subject of speculation that she will retire when the season ends next month.
Tina Maze of Slovenia also let slip a historic opportunity to tie the record for Alpine gold medals at the same Winter Games. Third after the first run, the downhill and giant slalom gold medalist dropped to eighth place. It was Maze’s worst result in five events.
Shiffrin is the first American woman to get a slalom medal of any color since Barbara Cochran won gold at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics. She showed her patriotic colors wearing a stars-and-stripes design on her race helmet and a small painted flag with USA written into it on the right side of her neck.
With her gold, Shiffrin lifted the American Alpine team’s tally at the Sochi Olympics to five medals, including one other gold from men’s giant slalom champion Ted Ligety.
“(Mikaela) will definitely win many, many races and have a big career in front of her,” Hoefl-Riesch said. “She’s an exceptional athlete and a great person.”