Shiffrin becomes youngest ever Olympic slalom champion
KRASNAYA POLYANA - Mikaela SHIFFRIN (USA) won gold on Friday evening to become the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history, but even more than that she grabbed the mantle of skiing's next global superstar with both hands.
The 18-year-old settled her on-going battle with 32-year-old Marlies SCHILD (AUT) in superb style, pushing the long-time slalom queen into silver medal position.
There was significant compensation for SCHILD as the first woman to win medals in three successive Olympic slalom races, following bronze in the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games and silver at Vancouver 2010. She also had the pleasure of sharing the podium with compatriot Kathrin ZETTEL(AUT), the bronze medal winner. It is the second time two Austrian skiers have finished second and third in an Olympic slalom race, after Nicole HOSP(AUT) took silver in Torino, with SCHILD winning bronze.
SHIFFRIN joined countryman Ted LIGETY (USA) in translating her status as a piping-hot favourite into an utterly dominant display. In the first run, SHIFFRIN skied like a woman who has finished on the podium in nine of her last 13 world cup slalom races, winning seven of them. The balance of aggression and elegance that has defined her rapid rise to the top was evident from the start, as her upper body remained still and her feet danced between the gates. It delivered her a 0.49 second advantage on the field.
Things were tougher on the second run as the pressure mounted on the 18-year-old's lithe shoulders, shoulders that have been piled high with national expectation since Lindsey VONN (USA) pulled out of Sochi 2014. It almost all ended in tears halfway down the second run. A major mistake on the steep middle section had SHIFFRIN sitting on the back of her skis.
"It was a crazy moment, I was going very fast and I thought I was not going to make it. It scared me. The skies can make pretty fast turns if you just make them," SHIFFRIN said.
Her athleticism allied to the 1.34 second advantage she had on SCHILD allowed the USA skier to regain her balance and composure. She finished in a time of one minute and 44.54 seconds, 0.53 seconds ahead of SCHILD.
"To win, this is why we're all here, aren't we? What I know is that this is the real one; Olympic champion. I wish I could have an American flag on my back at every world cup race, because that's an amazing feeling to know you're representing not just yourself or your team or your family, but your entire country," said the gold medallist.
For SCHILD, the second run demonstrated what a true champion she is.
A mistake-ridden run in the early afternoon on soft snow had left the 2011 slalom world champion seventh quickest. She said: "After my first run I was very disappointed because I had such a bad feeling going down the hill. So I tried to change everything in the second run."
"I think I won the silver medal, not lost a gold medal. Of course, gold is missing."
For ZETTEL, the agony is over. After two fourth place finishes, in the super combined in Vancouver 2010 and the combined at Torino, the Austrian is an Olympic bronze medallist. It is Austria's sixth women's medal at Sochi.
Not only has ZETTEL had a tough season, failing to finish on the podium in a world cup slalom race, but she has also had to deal with the death of her grandmother during the Games.
"It was hard standing in the finish area, racer after racer. When Maria (HOEFL-RIESCH, GER) crossed the finish I crashed down laughing, crying, and laughing again. This was really my last chance for an Olympic meda," she said.
Tina MAZE (SLO), third after the first run, was disappointed to fade to eighth after a second run that spoke volumes of her tiredness. Historians of the sport, however, will not be slow in reminding her over the coming days that what she has achieved at Sochi has been nothing short of extraordinary. Her two gold medals, and a fourth and a fifth, go together with her slalom finish to produce the most complete performance in history by a woman skier at the Olympic Games.
The woman whose record she overtook, HOEFL-RIESCH, was equally disappointed, as she dropped from second in the first run to finish fourth. Her gold in the super combined and silver in the super G in what she has said are her final Games will no doubt cheer her up in the days ahead.
For now, it is SHIFFRIN time.