Mikaela Shiffrin, the teen skiing sensation from Vail, Colo., won gold Friday in Sochi in a dramatic slalom race, marking the first win by a U.S. woman in the event since 1972.
Shiffrin, 18, who has being skiing since she was 2, also made history as the youngest slalom winner, beating out the defending Olympic slalom champ Maria Hoefl-Riesch, 29, of Germany by just 0.49 seconds.
Her road to the Olympics was paved, like many athletes, at home, Shriffin shared with PEOPLE before her races. “My first time skiing was on little plastic skis. Basically my dad and mom took me up to the top of the driveway in a sled and helped me down the driveway,” she said.
Now, she’s hurling down steep hills at about 50 mph during giant slalom races. Not that there still aren’t nerves.
Shiffrin told PEOPLE that she was in awe of Olympic competition but before her big races, she tries to stave off any anxious moments by doing deep breathing exercises to lower her heart rate before setting off downhill, calling breathing “it’s own form of meditation in a very rudimentary way.”
While she is already a global champion, Shiffrin just recently just finished high school, opting for an online course in chemistry to earn her degree as she focused on training for her Olympic debut, which has now made her a true star of the sport.
She and Vonn, 29, had a huge bonding moment after training for the World Cup that ended up with the two in Shiffrin’s room painting their nails together. “I painted red and gold or something on it,” she said of her skiing “idol.” “It was pretty simple nail art. Those girly moments are really important.”
While Shiffrin has earned comparisons to Vonn, she hopes to one day compete right alongside her. “I hope that people can accept that I’m not her and I’m trying to carve my own path and respect her for what she’s done.”
So what does it feel like when she’s in the zone, flying through the white powder during a race? Time, she says, slows down.
“It’s like the movies like Secretariat, when the horse is in the zone and all you can hear is his breathing,” Shiffrin tells PEOPLE. “Can’t really hear anything but at the same time, you can hear everything. All our senses are magnified and also dimmed a little bit.”