As one of the youngest racers on the World Cup tour, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin has an advantage over her older competitors: sleep. That’s important, because in her specialty, the slalom, some of the races are run at night. “People waste energy in the morning, and they have none left at night,” she says. Shiffrin spends those late-race days logging z’s and then some. “I sleep a lot, as a teenager,” she says, “and even as teenagers go too.”
Maybe her opponents can’t sleep because they know they face in Shiffrin the reigning world slalom champion and the first American to hold that title since 1984. Shiffrin is a racing prodigy who won two world titles before she graduated from high school. She’s been running gates since she was a runny-nosed toddler, schooled by her ski-racing mom and dad (a nurse and a doctor in civilian life) and raised in both chichi Vail, Colo., and bucolic New Hampshire.
The timing is fortuitous for American medal hopes in Sochi. Shiffrin steps into the Olympic limelight just as the glamorous but injured Lindsey Vonn steps out of it. Shiffrin is a favorite in the slalom, in which skiers take two runs down an icy course lined with about 70 tightly packed gates in about 55 seconds. The lowest combined time wins. She’ll also run the longer, faster giant slalom, where her times have been improving rapidly. These are called the technical events as opposed to the speed events, which include the downhill, super-G and super combined.
Even without Vonn, the Americans look like medalists in a number of Alpine events. Julia Mancuso, 29, already owns three Olympic medals, including gold in the GS. She has a habit of showing up on the podium at truly big races. On the men’s side, Ted Ligety is the reigning GS champion, and five-time medalist Bode Miller, back from injury, is capable of astounding feats on skis in any race.
Like any other prodigy, Shiffrin has been practicing most of her life, dedicated to the music of perfect turns. “Every day I step on skis, I’m hoping to improve something. So I can honestly say that I’m getting faster. That’s what gives me the most confidence in my races,” she says. That was evident at a recent slalom in Flachau, Austria, where she led the field by almost a full second after the first run–an unthinkable margin in a nanosecond-minded sport. More recently, Shiffrin has been working hard at getting a quicker start and running the first couple of gates faster. “There are 15 girls who could crush me if I take my foot off the gas,” she says. But that isn’t likely to happen. One other thing: the slalom at Sochi takes place at night. Better get some sleep, ladies.
This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.