By Martyn Herman
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Mikaela Shiffrin described as “terrifying” the moment she almost blew Olympic gold and nearly gave her watching mother a heart attack after zig-zagging into the record books on Friday.
Already a world champion, the 18-year-old from Colorado now looks set for superstar status in the U.S. after becoming the youngest skier to win an Olympic Alpine skiing slalom - but for one hair-raising second she appeared to have thrown it away.
With her idol Marlies Schild of Austria waiting below in the gold-medal position after a masterful second run down the floodlit Rosa Khutor slope, clear first-leg leader Shiffrin blasted out of the start with gold seemingly in her pocket.
Fairytales usually have a dark twist somewhere, however, and so it proved as the American lost balance halfway down, momentarily lurching wildly on one ski, before snapping back into shape and surging across the line 0.53 second ahead.
“That was really terrifying,” a smiling Shiffrin, sporting a small Stars and Stripes transfer on her neck, told reporters after lapping up the acclaim of the fans in the grandstand.
“There I was thinking I‘m going to win my first gold medal and then it was like ‘Guess Not!'.”
“But I said don’t give up on this now, see this through.”
Shiffrin, who won her first World Cup race aged 17 also under floodlights, arrived in Russia as the big favourite for slalom gold after dominating the discipline throughout the season and was also a good bet for the giant slalom.
There was mild disappointment when she failed to win a medal in the GS on her Olympic debut on Tuesday so all eyes were trained on the young starlet on Friday to see if she could deliver on the biggest night of her fledging career.
She nailed her first run, opening a 0.49 lead on a bunch of battle-hardened skiers led by German veteran Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
With the job half done, any nerves were not showing, according to her mother Eileen.
”In between runs she seemed great, she just listened to some music and was super psyched about her first run,“ she told reporters. ”She said ‘You know what, I just really like to ski slalom, I‘m just going to go and ski some slalom’.
”But when her ski went up I was like ‘No!’
”(Coach) Roland (Pfeifer) and I definitely had a heart attack for sure. Thank God she was so quick to regroup and get going again, because then I could calm down.
“But I‘m pretty sure I almost had to be defibrillated.”
Shiffrin’s gold has helped fill the American void left by Lindsey Vonn, who missed the Games because of a serious knee injury.
With her bubbly personality, pretty face and the ability to ski “like on train tracks” according to Schild, Shiffrin is well on the way to replacing Vonn as the new face of U.S. women’s Alpine skiing.
She talks as smoothly as she skis too, wooing a clamouring posse of reporters with her every word.
“My whole goal of this whole fiasco was to ski my best, have some fun with it and put on a show,” she said.
”It’s amazing to have this mix-up where it’s a two-legged race and anything can happen. I keep proving that to myself in every single race, anything can happen.
“There in the middle of the run I had a bit of a brain malfunction.”
On the night Shiffrin delivered a second gold for the U.S. Alpine team in the Caucasus, following Ted Ligety’s giant slalom gold on Wednesday, it was fitting that Shiffrin had Austrians Schild and Kathrin Zettel for company on the podium.
“My first World Cup podium I was on the podium with Marlies,” Shiffrin said of the former world champion who has struggled with injuries in the last two seasons.
”She is my inspiration. I always wanted to challenge her and take it a step further, see if I can do what she does better.
“I‘m just so excited to be able to share this moment with her too, it seems like the first time I ever do anything she is always there pushing me.” (Editing by Mark Meadows)