KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, with the poise of someone 10 years older and the talent level that perhaps only she possesses, successfully made history Friday night at the Sochi Olympics.
Shiffrin, 18, of Eagle-Vail, Colo., won the gold medal in women's slalom, beating, among others, a trio of legendary European skiers - 29-year-old Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, 30-year-old Tina Maze of Slovenia and 32-year-old Marlies Schild of Austria.
Shiffrin was favored after taking hold of the slalom discipline on the World Cup circuit in the past year (winning three of six slalom races this season) and winning a world championship last year in Schladming, Austria, becoming the youngest woman to win an alpine skiing world title since 1985.
But, after taking a big lead in the first run in the afternoon, she still had to come through Friday night in a pressure-packed second run held under the lights, in the spotlight.
She survived a near fall about halfway through the second run in a moment that caused who knows how many gasps from those who saw it live or on TV.
"It was a pretty crazy moment there," Shiffrin said. "I went out of the start, and I was like, 'I'm going fast.' Then I went out of that flush and was like, 'I'm not gonna make it. I'm not gonna make it.' I threw on a hockey stop right there. That was a little bit tough.
"It scared me half to death."
She avoided a fall, though, was smooth on the last pitch and finished with a two-run time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds, beating silver medalist Schild by 0.53 seconds and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel, also of Austria, by 0.81 seconds.
Hoefl-Riesch finished fourth and Maze eighth.
Shiffrin became the youngest skier, man or woman, to win an Olympic slalom and the first U.S. woman to win the slalom at the Olympics since Barbara Cochran took the gold 42 years ago at the 1972 Winter Games.
It was the fifth medal and second gold of the Games for the U.S. ski team which, after a ragged start, has tied its second-best Winter Olympics performance, matching the five it won in 1984 - and that's without Olympic and world champion Lindsey Vonn, out with a knee injury. The all-time best performance was eight medals in Vancouver in 2010.
"I wish I could have an American flag on my back in every World Cup because that's a really cool feeling to hold that and know that you're not only representing yourself and your family or your team, but the entire country that you come from," Shiffrin said. "I owe this to so many people, and I'm so glad I could share it with them."
Not only did Shiffrin set a record for youngest Olympic slalom winner, but Schild set a record for oldest Olympic slalom medalist and also became the first woman to win slalom medals in three consecutive Olympics.
To share the podium with the legendary Schild was moving for Shiffrin.
"My first podium I was on the podium with Marlies," Shiffrin said. "She was kind of my inspiration for my slalom skiing. I always wanted to challenge her to take it a step up, to do what she does, but better. I'm just so excited to share this moment with her, too."
Schild, 14 years older than Shiffrin, was a gracious runner-up, even though for the third consecutive Olympics, her medal was not a gold one.
"She is amazing," Schild said of Shiffrin. "She's racing like she's been on the World Cup for years. I like to watch her ski. I feel like she's really deserving of this gold medal today."
Even though Shiffrin said she had been visualizing this moment, she gently shook her head back and forth several times during the post-race flower ceremony, as if she couldn't believe what was happening to her.
Shiffrin had the fastest first-run time - a smooth, fluid run of 52.62 seconds beat the defending Olympic champion, Hoefl-Riesch, by 0.49 seconds, and the defending World Cup overall champion, Maze, by 0.67 seconds.
Schild, the greatest female slalom skier in history, with a record 35 World Cup wins, finished way back (1.34 seconds behind Shiffrin) in the first run.
Shiffrin was in a similar spot as U.S. teammate Ted Ligety after the first run of the giant slalom Wednesday. Ligety nursed his big lead, racing conservatively in the second run and claiming the gold.
Shiffrin's lead was not quite as large as Ligety's, though.
In the second run, after Hoefl-Riesch and Maze couldn't post fast times, Shiffrin kicked out of the start hut with a 1.34-second lead on Schild, who had the fastest second-run time and held the lead with only Shiffrin left to go among the contenders.
She started out smoothly but, just after a flush of gates, she got her weight too far back and her left ski came off the snow. For a moment, it looked like she might fall.
"That was pretty terrifying," Shiffrin said. "I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to win my first medal.' But in the middle I was like, 'Guess not!'
"I got going a little bit faster . . . I mean, the whole goal of this whole fiasco was just to ski my best, have some fun with it and put on a show for everybody watching."
Said U.S. women's slalom coach Roland Pfeifer: "I thought, 'It's over.' Sometimes Mikaela for some reason, when she's really hammering it, she gets in the back seat a little bit. That was brutal. I can't describe how I felt."
The morning of the race, though, Pfeifer was convinced Shiffrin was ready.
"She was really confident," he said. "She was saying, 'I'm going to win this thing. I'm going to do the same thing (Ted) Ligety did. I'm the world champion, and I'm going to do it.'"
When Shiffrin got to the finish area, she took a few moments to look at the scoreboard.
"I was a little bit scared to look at it," she said. "I was like, 'Man, I gave it all away, I know it.' And then I'm always in this little frenzy of finding it. It seems like they always put it in this corner, in this little pocket where I can't see. I'm looking around frantic like, 'Where am I?' I found it and was like, 'Whew, I got that one out of the way.'"
Shiffrin's parents, Jeff and Eileen, both of whom have helped coach and develop her, were there to see the triumph - and experience the near-disaster.
"When her ski went up, I almost died," her mother said. "I was like, 'No!' That's what happened in Kranjska Gora (Slovenia), in her last race, and she dumped all of her speed. She's a quick learner, though ... and got going again. I'm super proud of her, but Roland and definitely had a heart attack, for sure."
Shiffrin's mother, a master's ski racer, said her daughter had developed a cold - a common condition among ski racers - after her fifth-place finish in the giant slalom Tuesday but seemed confident early Friday and had definitely benefited from the experience of her first race.
"Looking back on it she was super happy how she did," her mother said. "And then she heard (U.S. teammate and super-combined bronze medalist) Julia Mancuso was throwing her some kudos and saying, 'Good for that kid for doing that, for skiing well on that course.' And I think that was really good for her to hear. For sure, that was a confidence booster."
Of course, a gold medal didn't hurt her confidence much, either.
For a couple of years, she's heard people calling her the next Lindsey Vonn. After the race Friday night, a Slovenian reporter called her a young Tina Maze.
"It's amazing to be compared to them and I'm honored to be compared to them but I don't want to be the young Tina Maze or the next Lindsey Vonn," she said. "I want to be Mikaela Shiffrin and hopefully this gold medal is going to prove that."