By Mark Trevelyan
PYEONGCHANG (Reuters) - American Mikaela Shiffrin put on a show of grace, power and consistency to win her first gold of the Pyeongchang Olympics in the women's giant slalom on Thursday, in the best possible start to her quest for a handful of medals.
Norway's Ragnhild Mowinckel took silver and Italy's Federica Brignone won the bronze, as the women's Alpine program finally got under way after days of frustrating weather delays.
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It was the perfect start for Shiffrin, who won the slalom in Sochi four years ago and could compete in four or five more events in Pyeongchang, with her preferred slalom on Friday.
In a contest of sharply fluctuating fortunes between the morning and afternoon runs, her placings of second and fourth-fastest gave her a combined time of two minutes, 20.02 seconds, and a comfortable margin of 0.39 seconds over Mowinckel.
"I have the slalom race tomorrow, so I have to refocus my energy, but to come to the Olympics after some tough races on the World Cup circuit and, you know, to charge like that... I risked it on the second run," said Shiffrin, whose form was inconsistent in the weeks running up to the Games.
"I don't know when it was, at some point today after the first run I thought 'I can really win this'. I just tried to hang onto that feeling."
Shiffrin's performance even left her coach Mike Day astounded.
"That was amazing. That was a champion's performance," he told reporters. "She came out and won the race, nobody gave it to her. Those girls were going hard."
Italy's Manuela Moelgg was the last of the top 30 to race, having beaten Shiffrin by 0.2 seconds in the morning, but she fumbled her chance of winning an Olympic gold at the age of 34 and finished the competition in eighth place.
Sweden's Estelle Alphand posted the fastest afternoon time but was only 26th in the morning, leaving her 16th overall.
With many competitors struggling to avoid mistakes and several wiping out altogether on the steep 1,250 meters-long slope, with a vertical drop of 400 meters, Shiffrin was conspicuous by her smooth, attacking style and easy rhythm.
Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, the 2010 giant slalom champion and bronze medalist in 2014, missed out on a medal as she came in fourth,0.08 seconds behind Brignone.
"I think my head is going to explode and my heart too," Brignone said of her bronze medal.
"It's pretty tough right now but I'm so happy."
(Additional reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by John O'Brien/Greg Stutchbury)