ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 21 (Reuters) - U.S. ski sensation Mikaela Shiffrin is well on her way to becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion after leading the final women's race of the Alpine programme with a storming first run on Friday.
Shiffrin, 18 years and 345 days old but already world champion in the discipline and hot favourite for gold, sped down the 61-gate Rosa Khutor course in an error-free 52.62 seconds on an overcast evening.
"The plan was to move my feet faster than everyone else and I guess I moved them five tenths faster," the Vail, Colorado, resident told reporters, adding that she found the course a little tighter than usual.
The youngest ever U.S. ski world champion sported a transfer of the 'Stars and Stripes' on her neck, explaining that it was "just in case everybody can't tell I'm American."
Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the 2010 champion bidding to become the first woman to win back-to-back slalom titles, was second and with 0.49 to make up in the second leg, which is set by Swiss coach Werner Zurbuchen.
"I'm a bit surprised to be in this position but the second run will be a tough challenge because the snow is not holding up very well," said Hoefl-Riesch, who started third with Shiffrin sixth out of the hut.
"It's going to be tough but I'll try my best."
Slovenia's Tina Maze, chasing her third gold medal of the Games after her success in downhill and giant slalom, was third and 0.67 off the leader.
Italy's Paoletta Magoni is the current youngest Olympic slalom champion, winning gold in Sarajevo in 1984 at the age of 19 years and 156 days. Switzerland's Michela Figini won the downhill that same year at the age of 17.
Austria's Bernadette Schild was in fourth place with her older sister Marlies, the 2010 silver medallist who at 32 could become the oldest slalom champion, in sixth but 1.34 adrift of Shiffrin.
"She skied perfectly like she always does," Bernadette said of Shiffrin, who has replaced the absent Lindsey Vonn as the smiling face of U.S. women's skiing. "She makes no mistakes, that's what makes her so fast."
The second run starts at 2015 local (1615 GMT). (Editing by Peter Rutherford)