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Ex-champ watching Mikaela Shiffrin closely

Mikaela Shiffrin goes for slalom gold on Friday.

ezra shaw/getty images

Mikaela Shiffrin goes for slalom gold on Friday.

You stand in the starting gate before one of the largest crowds that ever watched you race, stretching down the sides of the course, all watching you. The wait hangs heavy.

You won the first run of the slalom by just three-hundredths of a second, and spent much of the time between runs trying to erase the thought that you’re just a run away from one of the rarest prizes in sports, especially for an American: an Olympic gold medal in ski racing. You are 21 years old.

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That was 42 years ago in Sapporo, Japan, and Barbara Ann Cochran remembers it as if it were yesterday.

“I was confident in my ability to do well,” she remembered, “but I started to focus on the possibility of winning a gold medal, and once I did that, I started to choke. I had this feeling of pressure and tension that I didn’t want. I had to change the way I was thinking.”

She told herself that just winning one Olympic run was an honor, that she only had to ski her best and not worry about results, that if the French girls could do it, so could she.

She even found her father, Mickey — patriarch of the Skiing Cochrans of Vermont — in the crowd. Mickey told her she’d be fine because she was “the cool cucumber” of the family. This assessment was oddly calming to her.

Cochran was barely ahead of France’s Daniele Debernard, and in those days she had no way of knowing that Debernard had just skied a very fast second run and was leading the race.

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“I think if I’d known that, I might have choked,” said Cochran.

As it was, a minor disaster at the start of her second run nearly cost her the race. As she rocked back to load spring into her ski tails, her knees hit the starting wand, snapping it open to begin the timing clock before she was ready.

“I took off, but I was thinking I blew it,” she said. “I even considered stopping and asking for a restart, but then thought maybe they wouldn’t give it to me. So I kept going.”

It was a lot to be going on in a young athlete’s mind in the few seconds between the start and the first gate. But the history books show that if Cochran did have a slow start, she certainly made up for it.

Cochran won by the narrowest of margins — two-hundredths of a second — giving the US just its fourth women’s Olympic gold medal in Alpine skiing (Gretchen Fraser in ’48, Andrea Mead-Lawrence two in ’52), though she didn’t know the results right away.

At 5 feet 1 inch, Cochran was too short to see the scoreboard over the crowd, though she knew she had skied well. She was quickly engulfed by her brother Bobby (also a champion Alpine racer) and her boyfriend, who hoisted her on their shoulders.

When she finally did see her time, said Cochran, “It was just really nice to see my name, time, ‘USA,’ and ‘No. 1’ on the same line.”

Since those Winter Games in 1972, fortunes have changed for the US Ski Team. By 1984, when five Alpine medals went to US skiers, success on the slopes had ceased to be a novelty. Today, names such as Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, and Julia Mancuso have become staples in the American sports scene.

Another is Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old technical racer from Eagle-Vail, Colo., by way of Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont who has found unprecedented success in her first two seasons. Shiffrin has seven World Cup slalom wins among her 14 podiums, plus a national championship and a world championship.

On Friday, Shiffrin will attempt to duplicate the accomplishments of Fraser, Lawrence, and Cochran as she goes for the Olympic gold in slalom — her specialty — in Sochi, Russia. Shiffrin made her Olympic debut Tuesday by placing fifth in the giant slalom.

Cochran has watched the meteoric rise of Shiffrin and is not surprised.

“A lot of kids really get caught up in results,’’ Cochran said. “But with Mikaela, it was never about results. It was always about becoming a better skier.

“She’s a very unusual person in that she loves drills. Rather than just going free skiing, she would rather get in the gates and drill on making sharp, clean, carved turns. When you decide you want to get good at something, you have to practice it over and over and over again. I remember being motivated in the same way.

“She’s an extremely solid kid who honed her skills so well and makes such sharp, carved turns, she just does that better than most of the girls.”

Cochran, who now coaches young ski racers at her family ski area in Richmond, Vt., enjoys the fact that US skiers are now used to winning and even expect it.

“Once you see skiers around you meet with success, you say, ‘If they can do it, I can too,’ and that’s how success affects the whole team,” said Cochran. “It wasn’t always that way.

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