KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Mikaela Shiffrin was cruising to a gold medal halfway down the slalom course in the Olympics.
Then, in a split-second, everything was in doubt. She hit some soft snow and her left ski went high in the air. She struggled to regain her balance.
“I thought it was over,” said her coach, Roland Pfeifer.
“Roland and I definitely had a heart attack,” said her mom, Eileen.
But, just as quickly, Mikaela aggressively recovered, re-established control, and fluidly skied to the finish. She took a moment to look up at the scoreboard, and when she did, she saw that she had won the gold medal by 0.53 seconds.
“I was a little bit scared to look at it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I gave it away, I know it.’”
Shiffrin, 18, of Eagle-Vail, becomes the youngest-ever slalom Olympic gold medalist. It’s the first gold medal in women’s slalom for the United States since Barbara Cochran won in 1972. The Ski and Snowboard Club Vail alumna has now won an Olympic gold, a World Championship and a World Cup slalom globe, and she’s still a teenager.
“It’s an amazing feeling to win an Olympic gold, and it’s going to be something that I chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life, but my life’s not over yet,” Shiffrin said.
Shiffrin’s parents, Jeff and Eileen, celebrated in the finish area at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center as reporters mobbed their daughter.
“It’s a magical moment,” said Jeff Shiffrin. “I’m just so happy for her.”
Eileen has traveled on the World Cup circuit with Mikaela, serving as an adviser, representative and coach, as well as mom.
“I think she’s one of the best slalom skiers on the World Cup on any given World Cup,” Eileen said. “On any given day there are a handful of other girls, too, that are awesome slalom skiers. But in my mind, Mikaela — when she skis her best — it’s the best skiing.”
Shiffrin skied a great first run with no major mistakes, building a 0.49-second lead over the next-closest competitor, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, of Germany, the defending champion in the Olympic slalom.
When Shiffrin — the favorite to win — was heading up the lift for the second run, she started to realize how close she was to getting a gold medal, tearing up at the prospect of being an Olympic champion. But she regained her composure, listening to some music and doing word searches.
“She said, ‘You know, I just really like to ski slalom. I’m just going to go ski slalom and not worry about this any more,’” Eileen said.
Under the flood lights after darkness fell for the second run, Hoefl-Riesch faltered, ending up fourth. Two-time Sochi medal winner Tina Maze, of Slovenia, who sat in third after the first run, couldn’t put anything together in her second run, either, falling to eighth.
Austrian Marlies Schild, the all-time leader in women’s World Cup slalom victories and one of Shiffrin’s role models, put down a blazing second run, the fastest of the day, to finish second and get the silver. Kathrin Zettel, also of Austria, won the bronze.
Shiffrin began her second run by widening her lead, but the bobble in the middle of the course cut it in half. She still recovered to win by more than half a second.
“She’s amazing,” Schild said of Shiffrin. “She’s racing like an athlete that’s skied in World Cup for years. It’s fun to compete against her but it’s also really hard because she’s really good in every condition. … I think she really deserves this gold medal.”
Dr. Bill Sterett, of Edwards, the head doctor for the women’s team, watched from the start gate and then was in the finish area for the flower ceremony.
“Spectacular,” he said. “It’s a little Vail girl. … To be able to have Mikaela launch into such a big stage from here is just spectacular.”
Shiffrin will now enter a whirlwind of media obligations, from Sochi to New York and beyond, for the foreseeable future.
“From what I’ve heard, there’s a lot more media, but maybe (my life) won’t change so much, it’ll just change in the way I want it to change,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to be the same girl and still be looking for more speed on the mountain.”