Updated: February 15, 2014 at 6:14 pm
SOCHI, Russia - Mikaela Shiffrin has dwelled here, in these gorgeous mountains on the edge of the Black Sea, for the past year. Not in body, but in mind. She's envisioned crashing on the perilous slalom course, and she's envisioned a gold medal hanging from her neck. She's run through every possible scenario. She's pondered all possibilities.
And now she's ready for the reality of the Olympics.
"I'm the best prepared I could possibly be," Shiffrin said. "I've been here before in my head so many times. To everybody else it's my first Olympics, but to me it's my thousandth."
Shiffrin, who grew up in the Vail Valley, looks ready to burst out of the relatively anonymous realm of ski racing to a young woman celebrated from New York to Tokyo. The Olympics is the world's ultimate sports stage.
But worldwide celebrity is still a few days away. On Saturday, she met with the media for 30 minutes with cameras clicking and a few dozen reporters writing and recording her every word.
After the conference, she wandered in the Russian sunshine. She wore jeans, a long-sleeved red shirt and carried a backpack. Nobody recognized her. She was looking, in vain, for an exit from the heavily fortified Olympic Media Center.
Fortunately for ski fans, and for Shiffrin, she finally found an escape route from the Media Center.
This week, Shiffrin's days as a somewhat-famous teen should end. She's the favorite to win the slalom, where she reigns as world champ, and a prime contender in the giant slalom. She's poised, articulate and camera-ready. You've been warned; she's on her way to becoming The Next Big Thing in American Sports.
She's a fascinating blend. Her talent is undeniable, but it's her relentless preparation that makes her special. She spends hours thinking about her sport, considering the thrills and the dangers, and arrives at the top of the slope utterly prepared for victory.
She's similar to another hard-working, deep thinking American titan. Bill Russell, like Shiffrin, spent hours watching a film in his head, a film that portrayed a tall man named Bill directing the Boston Celtics to titles. What Russell first dreamed, he later actually delivered. He pushed the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons.
Shiffrin runs through all the possibilities. She sees virtually perfect runs to the finish line. And she watches, in her mind, horrendous crashes and the mistakes that led to the crash.
"I've envisioned myself crashing because I know what mistake I made in my head to cause that crash," she said. "And I know I'm not going to do that. It takes a lot of courage to see yourself at every position and then brush it aside on race day."
Shiffrin realizes what you might be thinking. Slalom racing requires instinct. No matter how much Shiffrin prepares, no matter how many times she watches those movies in her mind, surprise and peril await her on the course.
"I don't think it's too possible to be too prepared but it's possible to think too much," she said. "On race day, have to turn those extra thoughts off. . I don't feel any doubt right now. I just feel really excited."
Shiffrin is a realist. Many athletes decline to embrace the truth about the about the Olympics. The reality is this is their one chance to seize the world's attention.
"There are definitely more nerves," she said. "Because this means something to the rest of the world and that makes it mean something to me. But it's an enthusiastic nervousness and I'm starting to be able to channel that."
A year ago, Shiffrin visited the Russian mountain where she will ski this week. She took, as is her style, mental snapshots as she descended the slopes.
Since then, she's watched highlight and lowlight reels in her mind. She's seen herself on the best and the worst runs of her life. She's considered the crushing pressure. She's meticulously prepared for the biggest competitions of her young life.
"Who wouldn't be nervous?" Shiffrin asked.
Let me answer:
A supremely gifted American teenager.