KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Just when it seemed Mikaela Shiffrin was going to remove all suspense from her pursuit of Olympic history here Friday night, the precocious teenager from Eagle-Vail had a heart-stopping flirtation with disaster that made her coach and her mother think the gold medal she seemed destined to win was lost.

Shriffin had a comfortable lead after the first slalom run, a lead that grew wider after some of her closest pursuers faltered in their second run. The race that could make her the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history at age 18 seemed like a lock — if she didn't throw it away.

She almost did. Midway down the floodlit course Shriffin got caught off balance with her weight back. Her left ski came up in the air and she barely made it around the next gate.

Gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin of Colorado raises her flag as silver medalist Marlies Schild, center, and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel, both of Austria, stand nearby after the second women’s slalom run at the Sochi Winter Olympics on  Feb. 21, 2014.
Gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin of Colorado raises her flag as silver medalist Marlies Schild, center, and bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel, both of Austria, stand nearby after the second women's slalom run at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

"That was pretty terrifying for me," Shiffrin said after winning the race by 0.53 of a second. "There I was, I'm like, 'All right, I'm just going to win my first medal,' and then in the middle I'm like, 'Guess not.' I'm like, 'No! Don't do that, do not give up, you see this through!' "

Her mother, Eileen, and coach Roland Pfeifer were just as scared.

"When her ski went up, I almost died," Eileen said. "I was like, 'No!' Roland and I definitely had a heart attack."

Pfeifer thought it was over.

"Sometimes Mikaela, for some reason when she is really hammering it, she gets a little in the backseat, her skis shooting out," Pfeifer said. "That was brutal. I can't describe how I felt. Luckily she was really ripping the top, and it was just good enough to win."


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Marlies Schild of Austria, Shiffrin's role model and inspiration when she was a junior racer, claimed the silver medal and teammate Kathrin Zettel took bronze. Schild stood in sixth place after the first run, so she was happy to make Shiffrin, the medal favorite, work for the gold.

"I think I won the silver medal, I did not lose any gold medal," Schild said. "She's a great girl, and she knows what she does. She picks out the good things from other racers, and I think she picked out some good things of me, too. She's skiing great in every condition at the moment, so she really deserves the gold medal today."

It was fitting, and rewarding, for Shiffrin to share the podium with the woman she worked so hard to emulate and surpass.

"I always wanted to challenge her to take it a step up and see if I can do what she does, but better," Shiffrin said. "I'm just so excited to be able to share this moment with her, too. I'm really proud of myself and proud of her and Kathrin."

Since her spectacular season a year ago when she won the World Cup slalom title and a gold medal at the world championships, Shiffrin was considered the slalom favorite here even though no one her age had won it before. Some wondered if the added pressure of the Olympics would bother her, or if she would handle it just as maturely as every other step in her development.

When teammate Ted Ligety won the giant slalom Wednesday as the reigning world champion and heavy favorite, Shiffrin found new inspiration.

"In the morning she was really confident," Pfeifer said. "She (said), 'I'm going to win the thing, I'm going to do the same as Ligety did, I'm the world champion and I'm just going to do it.' That made me really comfortable."

Despite a sinus infection and a scratchy throat that had Eileen a little concerned, Shiffrin posted the fastest first run with a margin of 0.43 over the reigning Olympic slalom champion, Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.

"In between runs, she seemed great," Eileen said. "She seemed super psyched about her first run, just really positive. She said, 'I just really like to ski slalom, I'm just going to go ski slalom, not worry about all this anymore.' "

Hoefl-Riesch and Tina Maze of Slovenia, another close pursuer who won two gold medals here, had poor second runs. Schild's sister, Bernadette, failed to finish after posting the fourth-fastest first run. It was shaping up as a rout until Shiffrin lost her balance. Even though she made a quick recovery, she hesitated before looking at the standings when she crossed the finish line.

"I was a little bit scared," Shiffrin said. "I was like, 'Oh, I gave it away.'"

Shiffrin's father, Jeff, ever the man with the plan, saw the evening as another step in her development.

"It's the same old story, it's about the process, it's about improving, it's not about winning," Jeff said. "And when you win, enjoy it, be excited. It's about sticking with, 'I have to be better tomorrow than today, if at all possible.' "

Shiffrin became the first American woman to be Olympic slalom champion since Barbara Cochran in 1972. She also gave the U.S. its fifth alpine medal here. Only at the 2010 Vancouver Games has the U.S. won more (eight).

"This is where somebody is expected to win, they've proven that they're the best in their discipline, they've won a world championship, but it's like Ted — you have to come here to confirm who you are," said Bill Marolt, chief executive of the U.S. Ski Team. "It's such a fulfilling thing to see and be part of and watch and enjoy. It just makes you feel good."

Shiffrin said it was an "amazing feeling" to be Olympic champion.

"I owe this to so many people, and I'm really glad I can share it with them," Shiffrin said. "It's not just me, it's the entire U.S. I've seen all the Tweets, and all of the support, and all of the critics too — the doubters who don't want to see me do it, or don't know if I can. Every single one of them has pushed me to this point, and I owe this to them as well."

John Meyer: 303-954-1616, jmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer