With a clutch performance down a choppy course, 18-year old Mikaela Shiffrin skied to a gold medal under the lights in Friday's night slalom, becoming the youngest ever Olympic champion in the event. She beat Austrian slalom legend Marlies Schild, the skier she grew up idolizing.
After setting the fastest first run with a smooth, near-flawless performance down the soft, soggy snow, Shiffrin — running 30th in the evening leg — stood atop the course looking incredibly relaxed, even as she watched the world's best female slalom skiers get rocked by ruts resembling a bobsled run.
Shiffrin was so cool and calm, in fact, that even a near race-ending bobble in the second run couldn't derail her destiny. On the upper section of the course's pitch, she got thrown wide around a gate and almost came off course.
"There I was, I'm like, 'Great. I'm just going to go win my first medal.' And then in the middle of the run, I'm like, 'Guess not.'" Schiffrin told reporters. "So like, 'No. Don't do that. Do not give up. You see this through.' My whole goal was to just keep my skis moving."
Aside from the mistake and impressive recovery, everything else went according to plan.
Shiffrin is that rare skier who doesn't let nerves disrupt fast turns, no easy task in a sport that leaves little room for error. It's this ability to keep her composure no matter how high the stakes (or slim her experience) that's allowed Shiffrin to quickly become the world's best slalom skier in a span of only two years.
In 2011, the then 16-year old high school student burst onto the U.S. Ski Team by winning a national title in slalom. Nine months later, she landed on her first World Cup podium in the same discipline, and last year she broke through with four World Cup wins en route to winning the overall slalom title, plus a World Championship gold in the same event.
This season, Shiffrin — still a two-event skier who focuses on the technical disciplines — added giant slalom to her repertoire, netting two podium finishes in addition to her three slalom wins.
All this success added up to one thing: Pressure. The teenager came into Sochi as a threat in giant slalom (she'd go on to finish a respectable fifth in that event) and the favorite in slalom. So rather than merely soak up the experience of her first Olympics, Shiffrin had to deal with an intense media spotlight firmly trained on her as news outlets scrambled to find an American replacement for the injury-sidelined Lindsey Vonn.
Vonn comparisons have been inevitable during the young skier's career. But despite making her World Cup debut at 16, Vonn went four years before scoring her first win on the circuit, and another six before she claimed gold in Vancouver.
With seven World Cup wins to her credit and now an Olympic gold medal dangling around her neck, Shiffrin is on the accelerated program. And with her skill set rapidly expanding, the Colorado native is poised for many more Olympic medals, not to mention a potentially record-setting career.
For now, however, the youngster is just enjoying her moment.
"Today was one of the most special days of my life," said Shiffrin, clutching an American flag, beaming in the damp Russian night air and finally letting herself soak up the experience.