Thursday, March 3, 2011
Hannah Kearney pulls off her best trick
By Bonnie D. Ford
It was one of the most memorable performances of the Vancouver Olympics. In driving rain and fog at Cypress Mountain, moguls skier Hannah Kearney put together the run of her life, jumping and slicing precisely down the course to a gold medal ahead of home country favorite Jennifer Heil.
Delivering under those conditions "makes everything else seem simple,'' Kearney, a native and continuing resident of Norwich, Vt., told me by phone this week.
"I can't stop being happy about it. Then again, as an athlete, you can't really be satisfied," Kearney said of winning Olympic gold.
She took time to savor it, and still does. But another part of her moved on.
Kearney watched the tape of her championship run a few days later and found herself flyspecking it, picking out the nuanced things she could have done better. "My work is not done here," she thought.
That appears to have been quite the understatement. Kearney, who currently owns a commanding lead in the World Cup moguls overall standings, is doing the best skiing of her career at age 25 and has pulled off a trick better than any mute heli grab -- preserving her joy at accomplishing a lifelong goal while channeling newfound confidence into the will to improve.
With three events to go, she leads Heil by more than 200 points and could clinch her second season title (she also won in 2009) with a good performance in Are, Sweden, March 11-12.
The gold medal in Vancouver came toward the end of a frustratingly inconsistent season and a wildly fluctuating few years for Kearney, who won a precocious world championship in 2005, failed to qualify for finals at the 2006 Olympics and struggled with injury and motivation between successes. A tremendous technician on the bumps, she has always found taking to the air more difficult.
The quest for steady excellence "drove me this summer," she said. Kearney took time off in the spring and then, in a move that surprised her friends and coaches, she left her beloved home base for more than two months in the offseason to "relocate and re-evaluate" in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Kearney's least favorite part of elite competition is and probably always will be the travel, but she wanted to challenge herself and take a baby step away from her hometown. She trained her jumps over water, bought a mountain bike and did some serious hiking. Kearney emerged more committed than ever, and has dominated the World Cup circuit from the outset, winning six of eight events.
U.S. head moguls coach Scott Rawles, who oversees her training with World Cup coach Garth Hager, calls her the best-prepared skier on the tour.
"The Olympic gold was obviously her long-term goal, and that gave her a lot of relief," Rawles said. "Now she's just happy and just skiing. She trains really hard and focuses on her craft. I think she's the best-prepared athlete on the World Cup circuit."
No Olympic moguls champion has repeated since the event was introduced in 1992. Kearney said odds are she will take a shot at doing that at Sochi 2014, but she's very much in the present now.
The gold-medal experience is "compartmentalized," she said, in the special, safe place it deserves. "I can't stop being happy about it. Then again, as an athlete, you can't really be satisfied."