KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia » Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old wunderkind of ski racing, is a product of a countercultural movement in American youth sports, an initiative of parents who encourage their children to focus on the process of athletic achievement instead of the results.
Shiffrin, the most precocious ski racer the United States has produced, believed and preached the doctrine, even as she became the youngest slalom world champion a year ago.
Then, Friday night, Shiffrin skied to a commanding lead at the halfway point of the women’s Olympic slalom competition. The gold medal was hers to lose. Riding the chair lift for the second run, which would complete her coronation as ski racing’s newest queen, Shiffrin started to cry.
"I might actually be an Olympic champion," she gasped.
Minutes later, roaring down the racecourse, she could not get the gold medal out of her mind. Shiffrin was on the verge of crashing, one ski airborne, her arms flailing.
Her coach was sure the race was lost. Her mother wondered if she would have a heart attack. The racer relied on the process.
About 25 rapid and nearly flawless turns later, Shiffrin sped past the finish line to become the youngest Olympic slalom champion. She is the first American to win the event in 42 years.
Shiffrin’s winning time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds was 0.53 better her childhood idol, Marlies Schild of Austria, who won the silver medal. Schild’s teammate Kathrin Zettel won the bronze.
"Mikaela is going to win many, many races; I’m sure this is only the beginning," said Maria Hvfl-Riesch of Germany, the defending Olympic slalom champion, who finished 1.19 behind Shiffrin.
"She is a tremendous skier for someone so very young and very mentally tough."
Shiffrin dominated the first run Friday, taking nearly a half-second lead in an event often decided by hundredths of a second. She led the field at every timed interval down the racecourse, which drops about 600 feet top to bottom.
In the second run, many of the top medal contenders faltered. Shiffrin did, too, but survived her misstep to attack the course anew. Even with a major mistake, Shiffrin, the world’s best slalom skier since she was a high school junior, outclassed the competition.
"I’ve made that recovery in practice a hundred times, if not more," Shiffrin said later. "So I said, ‘You know what to do — charge back into the course.’ "
Bill Pennington, New York Times