By Mark Lamport-Stokes
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - After a surprisingly slow start to the alpine ski world championships, the United States finished with a flurry of two gold medals to captivate their home fans and inspire skiers of the future.
While snow queen Lindsey Vonn ended a disappointing fortnight with a solitary bronze medal, Olympic champion Ted Ligety won his third successive giant slalom crown and rising star Mikaela Shiffrin successfully defended her slalom title.
That gave the Americans a medal haul of five, capping two weeks of thrills and spills on the slopes of Beaver Creek and Veil that brought the sport of alpine skiing to a much wider audience in the United States.
"It's been absolutely amazing... to be able to show Americans what this sport is about," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president Tiger Shaw told reporters as the world championships wound down.
"The penetration and exposure that a lot of people got through TV, it captures their interest in our sport. And very important to us, all the people that participate in skiing in the U.S. have been able to really see what's happening here.
"They've had a real inside track and been able to get to know our athletes much better and see incredible things happen on the hill, especially with Mikaela doing so well and Ted winning."
The worlds, back on U.S. snow for the first time since 1999, provided a much needed boost for the sport and the North American ski industry, which have seen younger generations gravitate to snowboarding and extreme skiing.
Television viewership worldwide is expected to exceed 800 million over the fortnight with record ratings for ski racing in the United States.
Apart from the gold medals won by Shiffrin and Ligety, the U.S. earned a silver, through Travis Ganong in the men's downhill, and bronzes, from Vonn in the women's Super-G and Ligety in the combined, during the first week of competition.
Shaw believes the overall team performance, watched by boisterous home fans, can only inspire U.S. skiers of the future.
"The importance of these events to us is enormous in terms of our (young skier) pipeline," Shaw said. "We know for sure there were seminal moments in the stands during these world championships.
"There were kids up there who said, 'I want to be like Lindsey, Ted, Travis, Mikaela.' The Park City ski team came all the way over here from Utah, a seven-hour drive. All of that makes a huge difference."
Shaw did concede, however, that the U.S. development pipeline faced several challenges.
"We didn't have five in the top 30 for the women's slalom on Saturday, fortunately we did in the men's giant slalom on Friday," he said. "I would love to have that ratio in every World Cup.
"We think that's a possibility. We work as well as we can with what we have, for example, with the 17- to 23-year-olds. And we are making significant changes to ensure we have more and more up-coming kids who are younger than 17 now.
"Hopefully in about 10 years we are back here and they are winning medals too and Ted and Lindsey will be on the sidelines watching them."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)