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By Martyn Herman
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - With an Olympic gold medal around her neck at the age of 18, American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is pure gold dust for a sport preparing to wave goodbye to a generation of greats.
Under the glare of the floodlights at Rosa Khutor on Friday, the teenager known on the circuit as the "Mozart of Skiing" produced a high-speed waltz through the gates to become the youngest ever Olympic slalom champion.
In facing down some of the world's most experienced slalomists to top the podium, despite a near wipe-out halfway through her second run, the precocious talent from Colorado proved she is a worthy leader of the new generation.
With U.S. ski team glamour girl Lindsey Vonn, who will be 33 at the next Olympics, rehabilitating after knee surgery, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso in the twilight of their glittering careers, and double Olympic champion Ted Ligety peaking, Shiffrin's emergence could not have been better timed.
Her impact will go far beyond the United States though.
Germany's three-times Games gold medalist Maria Hoefl-Riesch has skied her last Olympic run while Austria's Marlies Schild, who has a record 35 World Cup slalom wins, is nearing the end after finishing second behind Shiffrin on Friday.
In the sport's Alps heartland, where top ski racers are revered as A-list celebrities, Shiffrin, along with Swiss Lara Gut and Austria's Anna Fenninger, will help drive the popularity of Alpine skiing in the face of fierce competition from snowboarders and freestylers.
Pretty, articulate and media-savvy, she is the dream ticket for the marketing men who will be forming long queues for her signature over the coming months.
She is also refreshingly straightforward about her sport, slaloming with a fearless natural flair that cannot be taught from ski manuals alone.
"She just loves to ski slalom," her mother Eileen, who was her first coach and who has travelled Europe with her daughter since she was 15, said on Friday.
Hoefl-Riesch, who trailed in fourth behind Shiffrin, believes the American has the tools to one day dominate across all disciplines.
"Mikaela is going to win many, many races, I'm sure this is only the beginning," said Hoefl-Riesch, who has watched Shiffrin's rise from close quarters.
"She is a tremendous skier for someone so very young and very mentally tough. I'm sure she'll race in all the events."
Schild added: "She's amazing. She's racing like an athlete who's been skiing in the World Cup for years."
REINDEER AND GOLD MEDAL
When Shiffrin won a World Cup race in Finland last year she was presented with a reindeer. On Friday it was a gold medal.
But whatever prize is at stake, when it comes to weaving between tightly packed gates on an icy slope, the slalom world champion is clearly in a class of her own.
Only Ligety and Andrea Mead-Lawernce, back in 1952, have won two individual Olympic gold medals for the United States.
Shiffrin is halfway there already and, while there are many cautionary tales in a sport where serious injury is a constant threat, it would surprise no one if Shiffrin surpassed them in South Korea in 2018.
Coach Roland Pfeifer said he knew as soon as he saw her ski for the first time she had something special.
"When she was 16 I realized right away that she was one of a kind," Pfeifer told reporters.
"She wanted to know everything about skiing. The way she trains, the volume she trains, she's probably 25 already so it's kind of normal she skis the way she skis.
"She really thinks 24-7 about skiing, she is really full-on and totally professional."
Ice cool too, it seems.
Even with the world rushing by in a blur of white snow and red and blue poles on Friday she was able to recover from a mistake that for those without such natural balance and finely tuned instincts would have proved terminal.
Her reaction to that split second when her left ski left the snow was remarkable. Rather than panic, she simply pressed the accelerator and sliced around the remaining obstacles to gold.
"No matter what else was happening, I kept thinking that I had to keep my skis moving down the hill. Keep going, don't quit, don't stop," Shiffrin said.
Now that she has started collecting gold, stopping is unlikely.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)