By Mark Trevelyan
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Former Olympic champion Picabo Street is putting her money on Mikaela Shiffrin for the women's slalom, provided the U.S. teenager can put down a solid marker in the giant slalom three days earlier.
"In the back of my mind I'm like: 'She's 18, if anyone's going to choke it's her'," Street, who won Olympic silver for the United States in the downhill in 1994 and gold in the Super G four years later, told Reuters in an interview at the Sochi Games on Saturday.
"But knowing her, knowing the personality she has, knowing the approach she has to her skiing, she's going to stay under the radar, she's going to be just Mikaela rolling, doing her thing."
Shiffrin captured the slalom world championship in 2013 and leads the World Cup standings with three wins this season, although she slipped to seventh place in her last race at Kranjska Gora in Slovenia at the start of the month. She has a long wait to compete in Sochi, with the giant slalom on February 18 and the slalom on February 21.
"We're going to know a whole lot about how Mikaela's slalom's going to be by how she does in the GS. And if she pops even just a strong, like let's say top eight in the GS ... LOOK OUT in the slalom," said Street, slowing her avalanche-style delivery for emphasis.
"So my money's on Mikaela," said the former racer with the distinctive name, which she famously picked herself at the age of three.
Now 42, she is working as a TV analyst, but the passion is clearly still there. She seems to be living each twist and turn as she watches a series of tumbles in men's downhill training, from the foot of the Rosa Khutor course above Sochi.
"The shadows on this course are hairy. This course is the real deal. It's as radical as it gets," she said, moments after watching American Marco Sullivan lose control and narrowly escape a serious crash.
She believes confidence will be the key to the men's race tomorrow, in which U.S. veteran Bode Miller and Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal will start among the favourites.
"When you can't see where you're going and you've got drops and shadows, you have to be confident in yourself, you've got to ski in the front seat and you have to start your turns on the tip where you know they're going to work for you...You can't make dumb mistakes."
Street reckons that 'realistically' the U.S. men's team, which also includes triple world champion Ted Ligety, looks like capturing more medals than the women's, "but if everyone skied the way they could, it could be even-steven."
"That's the thing that I really like about the Olympics, it's watching people do what they're capable of doing on this stage. I liked pulling that off myself and I like watching them do it too."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)