SOCHI, Russia – Mikaela Shiffrin was riding on a chair lift through the Russian mountains on her way to her second slalom run. She’s only 18, but she’s spent hours envisioning this moment. That’s her thing. She dwells in the future.
She realized, sitting on that chair lift in the present tense, her vision of a gold medal was about to come true. She was overwhelmed. She started weeping.
“This actually might happen and I don’t want to think about if it does,” Shiffrin said. “And then it did happen and I don’t know what to think. It’s hard to put into words how incredible this is.”
She had just walked into an interview room, wrapped in an American flag. She reigned as Olympic slalom champion.
Shiffrin, the defending world champ, rolled into the event as prohibitive favorite, but her victory included unexpected drama. After her dominating first run, the gold seemed a virtual certainty. Her run led the rest of the field by a commanding half-second.
But midway through her second run, she almost encountered catastrophe. She briefly lost her footing and wondered if she had lost her medal.
“Oh, I’m going out of the course,” Shiffrin remembered saying to herself. For an instant, she wondered if her Olympic debut would end in disaster.
“It was a pretty terrifying experience, really,” she said. “It’s probably not the worst thing that could happen in my life.”
But it probably would have been close to the worst thing.
Shiffrin, from the Vail Valley in Colorado, shared a remarkably satisfied podium with two of her heroes from Austria, silver medalist Marlies Schild and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel.
Schild, 32, struggled on her first run, finishing sixth, and wondered if her medal chances had vanished. She responded with a blazing 51.11-second time on her second run, best of the night.
“I did not lose the gold medal,” Schild said. “I won the silver medal with the second run. I don’t want to say I lost something today. I want to celebrate.”
So does Shiffrin. The teen gold medalist wants to celebrate her emergence as her own person. She’s endured hearing talk of the “next Lindsay Vonn” or the “next Tina Maze” for months.
“I do like being compared to all these amazing athletes,” Shiffrin said, making sure to sound diplomatic. “It’s amazing to be compared to them but I also want to be Mikaela Shiffrin and hopefully this gold medal is going to be able to prove that.”
Shiffrin entered these Olympics under immense expectations. She met those expectations.
Her fame took an enormous leap Thursday, but she declines to worry about how her life will be altered.
“Maybe it won’t change too much,” she said. “It will just change the way I want it to change. I’ll still be the same girl and still looking for more speed on the mountain.”