KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Before coming to Sochi, Mikaela Shiffrin had envisioned this moment. The reigning slalom world champion, she had visualized herself standing on top of the podium.
Ahead after the first run of women’s slalom, she was on the chairlift going up for her second run when she teared up.
“I was like, ‘This actually might happen, and I don’t know what to think if it does,’” she said.
Then it did happen. The 18-year-old slalom wunderkind overcame a bobble in the second run to win the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in women’s slalom since 1972. Shiffrin also became the youngest ever Olympic gold medalist in women’s slalom.
“You can visualize this in your head, and you can mentally prepare, and you can make the moment happen, and create your miracle,” Shiffrin added. “But when it does happen, it’s hard to put into words how incredible it is.”
Shiffrin beat her long-time idols Marlies Schild and Kathrin Zettel, both from Austria. Schild earned the silver medal with Zettel taking bronze.
In her first Olympic Games, Julia Ford was the only other American to finish the slalom. She placed 24th. Megan McJames skied out in the first run, and Resi Stiegler caught a tip in the second run.
A heavy favorite to win the slalom, the unflappable Shiffrin did not disappoint, and coach Roland Pfeifer was confident that his slalom ace would win.
“She (said), ‘I’m going to win this thing, I’m going to do the same as Ligety did, I’m the world champion, and I’m just going to do it,’” said Pfeifer. “That made me really comfortable.”
But the win did not come as easily as Pfeifer hoped.
Under the lights at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, Shiffrin was the sixth skier on course, right behind two-time Olympic gold medalist Tina Maze and right before Schild, a four-time overall world cup slalom winner. Schild, 32, first competed at the Olympic Games in 2002 when Shiffrin was in first grade.
While others hung on their edges on the tight course, Shiffrin danced around the gates as if doing the quickstep. By the end of the first run, she was 0.49 ahead of 2010 slalom gold medalist Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
“Mostly my plan was to move my feet a little bit faster than everybody else,” Shiffrin said. “I guess I moved them about 0.5 faster.”
Between runs, Shiffrin’s mom, Eileen, noted that her daughter was not nervous. They did a word search and listened to music, and Eileen’s only advice was, “Just don’t give this away; you don’t have to do 110 percent, but don’t give it away.”
Shiffrin agreed that she was calm but did admit to suffering nerves in the hours before the first run.
“There were a couple points throughout the day where I was like …” — she pretended to hyperventilate — “‘Oh my God, here we go.’”
Second run, Shiffrin charged out of the start. But then disaster almost struck. She hit soft snow, and her outside ski shot out. At the bottom, Eileen felt as if her heart would stop beating, and Pfeifer thought it was over.
“That was pretty terrifying for me,” said Shiffrin. “I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m going to just go win my first medal.’ Then, in the middle of the run, I’m like, ‘Guess, not.’ Then, I was like, ‘No, don’t do that. Do not give up. You see this through.’”
Her mom credited her daughter’s success to a similar mistake she made at a world cup slalom in January. Shiffrin watched video of that race over and over and said, “You know, I just need to learn if I have a mistake like that, I’ve got to get going faster, and I can save the race.”
She did save the race. And the Olympic gold medal, another highlight in her rapid rise in the ski world. Four years ago, while competitors such as Zettel and Riesch skied at the 2010 Olympic Games, Shiffrin was 14 years old and blowing away the competition by 3.36 seconds in slalom at Trofeo Topolino, a top international junior race — and she beat all the boys too.
Asked what makes her teammate so good, two-time Olympian Resi Stiegler explained that Shiffrin is really consistent.
“She trains the same way she races, and she’s got a lot of confidence,” said Stiegler. Those two things together are almost unbeatable.”
Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, said it’s about process — a philosophy he and Eileen have promoted.
“It’s about improvement, it’s not about winning,” he said. “It’s about sticking with it, and ‘I have to be better tomorrow than today if possible.’”
But today, Shiffrin did win, and she was especially thrilled to share the podium with her heroes, Schild and Zettel.
“They’re my greatest idols, and I used to watch them ski since I can remember,” she said. “I really modeled myself after them. So to be able to be in this moment with them … I’m really happy about it.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.