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Go For The Gold: Hannah Kearney

Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I MARCH 12, 2013

 
Hannah Kearney takes first place during the FIS Freestyle Ski
World Championship women's moguls on March 6, 2013, in
Voss, Norway.

The word “perfect” is rarely used in moguls skiing. Skiers’ runs can almost always be faster, their turns cleaner, and jumps higher. But “perfect” could have described Hannah Kearney’s final run at the 2013 World Freestyle Ski Championships in Norway last week. And near perfection netted Kearney her first world title since 2005.

Her victory came only six months after a training accident that kept Kearney off skis for almost three months. But rather than dwell on the accident, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist said it helped her stay focused this season.

“When I was watching my competitors train and compete, it only pushed me to not be complacent and to never take my health for granted,” she said. “It became an epic challenge to battle back and fight for [the World Cup leader’s] yellow bib.”

In addition to winning the world title, she is also leading the World Cup standings, despite missing the first two World Cup events.

Kearney, 27, hadn’t planned on any battles this season. The two-time defending overall freestyle and moguls World Cup champion had hoped to improve on the past two seasons, where she won 16 consecutive World Cups, surpassing alpine skiing legend Ingemar Stenmark, who won 14 World Cup races in a row from 1978-1980.

But then, while training on a glacier high above Zermatt, Switzerland, in early October, she crashed forward onto her chest while landing a jump she had practiced thousands of times: a back layout (a back flip where her body is fully stretched out).

It wasn’t a horrible crash. She had taken far worse — like when she tore her ACL in 2007 or suffered a concussion in 2008. This time, neither her head nor her knees hurt. But it felt like someone had kicked her in the stomach. And her chest hurt. As she lay in the snow waiting for a helicopter to carry her off the glacier, she thought, “Thank goodness this didn’t happen 365 days from now.”

Instead, she knew she would still have time to reach her goal: to be the first mogul skier to defend an Olympic gold medal.

In a Swiss hospital, she learned that she had two broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a bruised liver. She spent five nights in the hospital.

But except for sore ribs, Kearney felt fine. She walked around and stretched for two weeks. Then back home in Norwich, Vt., she began doing non-impact cardio workouts — up to eight hours a day on a spin bike, “long boring slow spinning.”

As the first World Cup moguls competition neared in mid-December, Kearney still hadn’t been cleared to ski. It was tough knowing her friends and teammates were competing in Finland, then Austria. At home in Norwich, Kearney woke up in the middle of the night to check World Cup results online.

Unable to compete, she spent time doing what her skiing schedule rarely allowed her to do. She flew south to watch her brother Denny play hockey for the Louisiana IceGators (a team in the Southern Professional Hockey League). She also put up a Christmas tree for the first time and organized her house.

“I now know what is in every single drawer in my entire house,” she said, half-joking.

Finally, on Dec. 17, Kearney was cleared to ski again; on Jan. 1, she could jump. She landed her first back layout (the jump she crash-landed in Switzerland) without a problem, and she realized that the time off might have been beneficial. Instead of tapering as the World Cup season started, she was still building strength.

At her first World Cup competition on Jan. 17, in Lake Placid, N.Y., Kearney knew it would be a mental game. She simply had to trust that she was physically ready to ski as well as she had in any competition last year. She fully believed that she had a chance to win the overall moguls title for the third consecutive year.

“I have nothing to lose right now,” she said on the eve of the Lake Placid World Cup. “I’m exactly 200 points behind the hunt for the overall tour.”

 
Hannah Kearney takes third place during the FIS Freestyle Ski
World Championship women's dual moguls on March 8, 2013,
in Voss, Norway.

And if she could win the overall title coming back from this deficit, then she knew that could make this season even better than the previous two.
Kearney won the Lake Placid World Cup, and then quickly overtook teammate Heather McPhie and Canadian rival Justine Dufour-Lapointe in subsequent World Cup competitions. On the eve of the World Championships, Kearney was again ranked No. 1 on the World Cup.

With World Championships not counting toward the overall World Cup title, Kearney looked at worlds as an opportunity “to go bigger and faster.”

“It’s almost a little bit of a break from the pressure, and that break allows me to push myself where I normally can’t during the [World Cup] season,” she said.

Kearney also viewed worlds as an Olympic test of sorts. The 2013 World Championships was the first time that the new Olympic format was tested. In the new format, women compete in qualifiers one day, with the top 18 moving on to the finals. From this round, the top six move on to a super-final. (At previous Olympic Winter Games, moguls skiers competed in qualifying and finals on the same day, with finals consisting of the top 20 qualifiers.)

Kearney qualified first at worlds, then won the final. In the super-final, she decided to go for it, skiing the fastest run by almost a half-second. Her turns were clean, and her top jump — the back layout — received the highest score of the super-final round.

“Hannah performed at an exceptionally high level even for her,” said U.S. head moguls coach Scott Rawles. “Quite an accomplishment to be world champion again after her last title in 2005.”

Two days later, Kearney won a world championship bronze medal in dual moguls, where two skiers at a time compete head-to-head.

Although she would have been extremely disappointed not to win worlds, Kearney’s ultimate goal is to win the overall World Cup moguls title for the third time and bring home yet another crystal globe. With Dufour-Lapointe only three points behind, Kearney must maintain her focus for three more World Cup events this season. Then she will hopefully head to Sochi as both the reigning world and World Cup champion.

“My motivation right now?” she said, when asked what keeps her going when she has won everything. “Well, I don’t have two Olympic gold medals.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.