By GRAHAM DUNBAR
Mikaela Shiffrin made Alpine skiing history Friday as the youngest ever winner of an Olympic slalom gold medal after making an astonishing recovery midway through her second run.
The 18-year-old American showed impressive balance and agility to protect her lead from a near-flawless first run to win in 1 minute, 44.54 seconds.
Shiffrin hesitated to celebrate as she completed her run, and only seemed sure she had won when the other medalists, Austrian teammates Marlies Schild and Kathrin Zettel, came across the finish area to raise her arms in triumph.
She finished 0.53 seconds faster than Schild, one of Shiffrin's childhood favorites. At 32, Schild has now won a slalom medal at three straight Olympics without winning gold.
Zettel took bronze, trailing 0.81 behind Shiffrin, and cried after securing her first Olympic medal following a series of near-misses at the past two Winter Games.
Shiffrin claimed the record for youngest Olympic slalom champion, male or female, from Paoletta Magoni of Italy, who won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Games when she was 19.
The Vail, Co. native completed a full set of slalom honors -- Olympic and world championship gold medals and a season-long World Cup discipline title -- before her 19th birthday next month.
This time, however, she won from the front instead of her usual aggressive second-run tactics to overhaul other racers.
Shiffrin had built a 0.49 advantage over Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany in late afternoon, using nimble footwork to deal with soft snow and a tight gate-setting on the steep course.
Schild had been only sixth-fastest, trailing Shiffrin by 1.34.
Hoefl-Riesch faded on her second time down to finish fourth in what is likely her Olympic farewell race, 1.19 behind Shiffrin and 0.38 outside the medals.
"It's really emotional. No matter what's going to happen, I had a great Olympic career," Hoefl-Riesch said after her first run.
The German has been the subject of speculation that she will retire when the season ends next month.
Shiffrin is the first American woman to get a slalom medal of any color since Barbara Cochran won gold at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics.
She showed her patriotic colors wearing a stars-and-stripes design on her race helmet and a small painted flag with USA written into it on the right side of her neck.
Shiffrin lifted the American Alpine team's tally to five medals, including two golds, at the Sochi Olympics.
Like giant slalom winner Ted Ligety, Shiffrin delivered under pressure as the strong pre-race favorite and first-run leader. But she needed to match the famous recovery skills of teammate Bode Miller to make her way through a series of gates on the steep, floodlit course.