Sochi Olympics: Mikaela Shiffrin overcomes near crash to win gold

SOCHI, Russia — Mikaela Shiffrin said she played the Olympics out in her head a thousand times before she arrived here.

In reality, it was a thousand times more intense.

She wrote down all the questions she thought reporters would ask and believed she had every course angle covered.

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But two days before Friday's race, the world's top slalom racer got a head cold.

Her legs burned so intensely over the last pitch on Friday's first run she wondered if she could make the finish line.

And then, midway through the second run, she almost gave away everything with a near crash midway down the course.

Shiffrin quickly found out that life is what happens after you make plans. But that didn't stop her from making history.

Pulling herself back from the brink of Olympic disaster, Shiffrin regained her composure to win the women's Olympic slalom at Rosa Khutor.

A month shy of her 19th birthday, Shiffrin became the youngest racer, male or female, to win Olympic slalom.

She did it with a two-run time of 1 minute 44.54 seconds against older, wiser racers she grew up admiring.

Shiffrin denied gold to her idol, 32-year-old Austrian Marlies Schild, who was trying to become the oldest women to win the event.

Schild finished 0.53 back and accepted reality along with her silver. It was her second straight slalom silver to go with the bronze she won in 2006.

Kathrin Zettel, another Austrian, won the bronze.

When Shiffrin crossed the second-run finish line without crashing, she knocked defending Olympic champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany to fourth.

It was Shiffrin's way of telling everyone else to move out of the way.

"She was the favorite," Zettel said. "She nailed all of us."

Shiffrin's win did not come without at least three near panic attacks by her mother Eileen, father Jeff and coach Roland Pfeifer.

Despite her sore throat and achy body, everything else was breaking Shiffrin's way Friday. The rain and sleet she faced in Tuesday's giant slalom, in which she finished fifth, had gone away.

Jeff Shiffrin spent Friday morning on his computer checking the hourly radar reports and was assured a rainstorm would pass by 3 p.m.

The first slalom run started at 4:45 p.m., under the lights, and sure enough, the sky had cleared for Shiffrin.

Shiffrin scorched her first run and left the hill with a 0.49 lead over Hoefl-Riesch.

By the time she skied last, Shiffrin knew she had a 1.34 head start over Schild, who skied the second-fastest run after finishing sixth in the first.

Halfway down the hill, though, Shiffrin "sat down" on her skies going around a gate and nearly skied off.

"I thought it was over," said Pfeifer, her coach. "That was brutal. I can't describe how it felt. It's over."

Shiffrin made a similar mistake in her last pre-Olympic slalom, dumped a lot of time and finished seventh.

Shiffrin said she'd learned something Thursday watching the Olympic women's figure skating finals. She said that when figure skaters make mistakes, they just keep their skates moving.

Shiffrin told herself "just keep my skis moving, no matter what."

She made the next gate and charged for home.

It took a while for Shiffrin to look at the scoreboard after she crossed the finish line.

"Well, yeah," she said, "I was a little scared to look at it. I was like, 'I gave it away, I know it.'"

But she had not. She surrendered nearly a second of her cushion but had almost a half-second to spare.

Her father said the entire sequence was "one of those magical moments that takes your breath away."

Pfeifer said that as far as skiing maturing Shiffrin, she is "probably 25 already."

Hoefl-Riesch, the great German with three gold medals, thought she might not be winning slaloms any time soon.

"She's really impressive at that age, what she has already reached," Hoefl-Riesch said. "She will definitely win many, many races and have a big career in front of her."

Shiffrin walked through the medal ceremony wrapped in the American flag. She then bounced into a news conference and praised the two medal winners sitting by her side.

Shiffrin said it was nice to be called the next Lindsey Vonn or Tina Maze, the great Slovenian who won two gold medals in Sochi.

But she said she just wanted to be the next Mikaela Shiffrin.

Mature beyond her age and skilled beyond belief, Shiffrin appears ready to handle the triumphs and travails to come.

"It's something I'm going to chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life," she said of winning gold at age 18. "But my life's not over yet."

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