PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Mikaela Shiffrin already had waited four years for this moment. A couple of more days didn't seem to bother her one bit.
After windy conditions delayed her ambitious – and perhaps historic – Olympic schedule, Shiffrin finally stepped into a pair of skis Thursday and gave the screaming crowd at Yongpyong Alpine Centre the sizzling performance it had hoped for, winning the giant slalom and capturing her first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games.
The win not only erased any doubts stemming from her recent struggles, but it heightened expectations for what could be a memorable Olympics. Shiffrin could race four more times in Pyeongchang and has a shot to join elite company here. Croatia's Janica Kostelic is the only female skier to win three gold medals at a single Olympics.
In many ways, Thursday was just the opening act for Shiffrin. She became the first American to win the woman's giant slalom at an Olympics since Julia Mancuso in 2006. Shiffrin, 22, needed a stellar final run to capture the gold; she actually trailed after the 81 competitors had made their first trips down the course.
In her six World Cup giant slalom wins, Shiffrin never had to come from behind to overtake the leader. On Thursday, she faced a two-tenths of a second deficit after the morning run but raced the second run 1.62 seconds faster than the first and posted a total time of 2:20.02 in the afternoon. The thrilling final run gave her a 0.39-second advantage over second-place Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway, who took silver with a total time of 2:20.41.
Bad weather and windy conditions wreaked havoc on the Alpine schedule early in the week, but the skies were clear and the wind barely noticeable Thursday morning as skiers assembled at the top of the hill. All eyes were on Shiffrin, especially after a January swoon cast just a bit of uncertainty on what she might be able to do here. Would she look like the smooth, confident racer who reached 11 straight podiums earlier this season? Or the one who finished no higher than seventh in the five races that preceded the Winter Games?
On Thursday morning, she was the seventh skier out of the gate, managing a time of 1:10.82. It was the second-best mark after the initial run and put Shiffrin in great position. Between runs, she was certainly happy with her time but also just relieved to finally get her Olympics underway.
"You don't even know," she said. "Oh my gosh, last night I was like, 'Are we ever gonna race?' No, it's really nice, and it's fair today, which is really, really important, especially at the Olympics. The conditions are great. The weather is beautiful and it's a pleasure to be racing today."
The final giant slalom results are determined by combining times from the two runs, which meant Shiffrin had a bit of ground to make up in the afternoon. Though she trailed Italy's Manuela Moelgg by 0.2 seconds, some of the other race favorites were stuck further down the leader board.
Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg was the highest-ranked giant slalom racer in the world and won gold in the event at the 2010 Olympics and bronze in Sochi. But she posted only the morning's eighth-best time – 1:11.45 – in the first run, leaving her with a significant 0.83-second deficit to make up. France's Tessa Worley was No. 3 in the world and fared even worse, finishing in 1:12.06, behind 14 other skiers and a full 1.44 seconds behind Moelgg.
"I still think everyone has some first-run jitters," Shiffrin said. "What you saw there from anybody, it wasn't really a good depiction of what we can all do. So, second run is going to be like a new race."
Rebensburg posted a total time of 2:20.60, while Worley finished in 2:21.06.
Shiffrin tried to focus on only one run – her own – and knew her first pass through the course put her in good position.
"I put some of my good skiing from training in there, but I also feel like I can go a little bit harder," she said. "There's nothing to hold back for in the second run. It's the nice thing about the Olympics is you don't hold back."
Any jitters were shaken loose in the morning and when she returned to the starting gate more than four hours later, Shiffrin knew exactly what she needed to pull out to win the second Olympic gold of her young career.
In many ways, this first event was cast as one that could give her some momentum and raise expectations for the remainder of her Olympic schedule, which continues Friday with the slalom. That's considered her strongest discipline – her lone Olympic title, in fact, until Thursday – but the giant slalom was still a good race for Shiffrin to open with at these Games.
She finished in fifth-place in the giant slalom at the Sochi Games, but steadily improved in the technical discipline in the four years that followed, winning the six giant slalom races on the World Cup circuit and reaching the podium in the event 13 times. She finished second at last year's world championships, which instantly made her one of the favorites for Pyeongchang.
Shiffrin was ranked third in the world in the event entering these Olympics but hadn't stood on a giant slalom podium in the previous five weeks – not since her victory Jan. 6, in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. Her last giant slalom race was Jan. 27 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, where she finished a disappointing seventh.
Shiffrin was supposed to have already completed her two best events by Thursday, but heavy winds on the mountain pushed the giant slalom to Thursday and the slalom to Friday. Shiffrin said she wasn't too worried about which was first; she was just eager to get these Olympics started.
"The toughest thing is just to mentally tide yourself over until it is time to go," she said. "And now we've been race-ready for the past, basically, five days in a row. And we're finally racing today. So that's good and also tough, but I feel good. I'm really happy to be out here."