KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA — Asking a question millions of Americans are sure to ponder when the Olympic spotlight falls on Colorado prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin, the European journalist wondered how she felt about being the gold-medal favorite in slalom.
"Is it tough for you?" he asked after yet another slalom win.
Shiffrin is only 18, and competing in disciplines where experience typically is more valuable than youth. She's been on the World Cup circuit less than two full seasons, yet she's favored to win at the Sochi Games because of her dominance. And with Lindsey Vonn out of action, Shiffrin figures to be the face of the U.S. women's alpine team.
So, really, is it tough?
"No, it's really cool," Shiffrin said brightly that January night in Flachau, Austria. "Imagine being in my position. I'm 18, and I'm going to the Olympics. It's one of my dreams come true."
Shiffrin's questioner persisted. "You do not feel any pressure?"
"Not right now. I'm just really excited," Shiffrin said. "There's more pressure when my Nana tells me that my ski racing is keeping her alive. That's more pressure than any race. It's just fun, and skiing."
America is about to learn what has enamored fans of ski racing about Shiffrin: She is not only a fantastic athlete doing things Vonn and Julia Mancuso couldn't achieve when they were her age, she is genuine, and as refreshing as a summer sun shower in her hometown of Eagle-Vail. She loves her 92-year-old Nana, Pauline Condron, who will watch her granddaughter on TV from her home in Massachusetts.
Last year Shiffrin emerged as the world's best slalom racer, winning four of eight World Cup races and claiming gold at the world championships. She's maintained that position this season while becoming a medal contender in giant slalom as well, twice placing on the podium. That makes her one of about a dozen U.S. athletes with realistic hopes for multiple medals.
"In some ways there's pressure, but I just see it as a really great position to be in, to know that I'm in a position where I could win one, if not two medals," Shiffrin said.
The pressure of an Olympics will be unlike anything she has ever faced, but to date, pressure hasn't bothered her. It didn't faze her when she won at the world championships as the favorite last year. But this is the Olympics. Millions around the world will be watching the teen from the Rocky Mountains who can become America's sweetheart by the way she dances on race courses and shines in interviews.
Magic on the mountain
Shiffrin's father, Jeff, said he believes the world championships last year offer clues to how she will perform at the Sochi Games.
"There's nothing like a world championship in Schladming, Austria, nothing like it," Jeff said over pizza recently in downtown Denver, where he works as an anesthesiologist. "It's just out of control. There are 40,000, 50,000 people, and you can't walk through the streets. There will be more military than fans in Sochi.
"She can focus on the process of, 'Do I feel good today? Can I go out there and put anything close to my training runs on this hill on this day in these conditions?' (Pressure) will be an issue, but because of the way she's always approached it, I don't think it will be an overwhelming issue. It doesn't mean that she (couldn't) make one bad turn and seconds are gone and you're done. That's just part of the deal."
That's ski racing, as competitors say.
Races are decided by fractions of seconds, and tiny mistakes are magnified. But there is something about the way Shiffrin races — with a confident spirit in union with extraordinary balance and stability on her skis — that seems to make her pressure-proof.
"She really is a little bit of a magician," said former U.S. Ski Team star Picabo Street. "She's so well prepared that she relaxes in the moment, and you can almost see her smiling when she's racing. I'm usually nervous when I watch ski racers, for fear that they are going to make a mistake and not pull it off. I'm relaxed and comfortable when I watch her race, and I have a little smile on my face.
"That's because it's her; it's how she is. It's how she's actually feeling while she's doing it, and that's what I'm experiencing as well. I'm really excited for the rest of the world that aren't die-hard ski fans to get to see that. I'm anxious for them to feel that from her, because they will."
That's what her father is hoping to see — the joyful, transcendent skiing for which she has become famous. If that happens, good results are likely to follow.
"There's no doubt that, when she has a great result, and/or she has great skiing, there are magical moments," said Jeff, a connoisseur of the sport. "They are exhilarating. They make your heart pound. They take your breath away. But even without those, even without the win, if she skis well, that's magical."
Vows to "ski my heart out"
Shiffrin gets a break from Olympic hype because of the way the alpine schedule plays out. The first 10 days are devoted to events she doesn't yet race — downhill, super-G, super combined. She will be training far from the Olympics and won't even go to Russia until Feb. 14. She will race giant slalom Feb. 18, slalom Feb. 21.
That's when she can become the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing. It hasn't even been 14 months since she captured her first World Cup victory Dec. 20, 2012, in Are, Sweden.
"Skiing among some of the fastest girls in the world and being able to come out on top, with the fastest time in two runs, it was a pretty amazing feeling," Shiffrin said of that win. "I went from being kind of a star-struck teenager racing with my idols to being one of them. That was probably the first time of, 'Oh, maybe I'll go compete in Sochi.' "
A year ago it seemed Vonn would be the skier who would be the face of this U.S. Olympic team. If, that is, she could come back from the knee injury she suffered at the world championships where Shiffrin won the slalom. Vonn's hopes of a comeback for Sochi disintegrated when she reinjured her knee training at Copper Mountain in November.
There are other U.S. women capable of winning medals in alpine skiing. Mancuso already has three, two of them coming at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. But Shiffrin is the exciting newcomer.
"It's a really big bummer that Lindsey's not going to be there to lead the way, because she's been the heart of the U.S. Ski Team for so long, leading the charge," Shiffrin said. "We're all going to miss her a lot, but I'm excited to take on my events. I'm going there to shoot for the gold and to ski my heart out."
Super ShiffrinA look at how Mikaela Shiffrin has performed at the World Cup this season:
World Cup site ... Finish
Levi, Finland ... First
Courchevel, France ... 12th
Lienz, Austria ... Second
Bormio, Italy ... First
Flachau, Austria ... First
Kranjska Gora, Slovenia ... Seventh
Frida Hansdotter, Sweden
Marlies Schild, Austria
Marie-Michele Gagnon, Canada
World Cup site ... Finish
Soelden, Austria ... Sixth
Beaver Creek ... Second
St. Moritz, Switzerland ... DNF
Val d'Isere, France ... Eighth
Lienz, Austria ... Third
Jessica Lindell-Vikarby, Sweden
M. Pietilae-Holmner, Sweden
Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein