When Hannah Kearney slides into the start at the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup in Ruka, Finland, on Friday, she will begin a season-long farewell tour. The two-time Olympic medalist plans on hanging up her mogul skis in March.
“It doesn’t feel like my last season until I notice little things,” she said earlier this fall.
Such as throwing out her ski poles at the water ramps. Kearney confessed to getting choked up as she tossed them in the trash after her last water ramp session, where she was practicing her jumps in Lake Placid, New York, in October.
“What made me scared about that is that’s not my favorite activity in our sport,” she said. “The idea that I was getting choked up about something that I wasn’t really going to miss was like, ‘Uh oh, I’m going to be a wreck in March.’”
Wreck or not, Kearney also aims to finish on top. Her goal is to win more world cup titles in moguls and the overall freestyle title. To date, she has won eight crystal globes — five small ones for the moguls title and three bigger ones for the overall freestyle crown.
“Obviously, I have lots of strong competitors,” she stated — namely Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the Canadian moguls skier who won the Olympic gold medal in Sochi, Russia. “But (the overall title is) something that I’ve always set my mind to.”
Kearney, 28, has won almost everything that there is to win in moguls skiing, often more than once. In addition to her two Olympic medals — gold from 2010 in Vancouver, B.C., and bronze in 2014 — and her overall world cup titles, she is the defending world champion. She also won the world championships in 2005. Over 12 seasons on the world cup tour, she has won 42 competitions and finished on the podium 63 times.
“She’s one of the most decorated mogul skiers, if not skiers, on the U.S. ski team,” said teammate Eliza Outtrim. “If we competed as often as some of the alpiners do, she would probably be the most decorated athlete on the team.”
But there is one trophy not yet in Kearney’s cabinet: a world championship gold medal in dual moguls. It’s a “fun goal,” Kearney confessed.
The 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships are scheduled for Jan. 16-25 in Kreischberg, Austria.
Kearney made her decision to retire last spring while she was finishing her freshman year at Dartmouth College.
“In order to accomplish anything else in my life, I’ve got to start doing it now,” she realized. She has been on the U.S. team for 13 years — since age 15 — and competed in three Olympic Games.
Retiring after the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games would have made sense. But she wasn’t quite ready to give up the sport yet.
“It’s a part of me and is really hard to put away,” she said. “I weighed the pros and cons, and it made sense to do one more year. But only one more year.”
So far, she has only had second thoughts once: when her long-ago injured knee started aching while training in October. She reminded herself that she has been lucky in her career, only suffering a few major injuries (torn ACL in 2007, concussion in 2008 and broken ribs/bruised liver in 2012).
Asked what she will miss the most, she said crossing the finish line after a good run.
“There’s nothing more satisfying,” she said. “Mogul skiing is really difficult, the combination of speed and power, balance, having to execute two acrobatics. Sometimes when you have a really good run, it almost feels like luck. You’re like, ‘Whoa, I did it when I was supposed to.’ I’m going to miss that feeling.”
And while she is looking forward to a new life — as yet undetermined, other than finishing college — she admits that she will miss the perks of life on the road, such as the bakery in Åre, Sweden, and the hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland, with the view of the Matterhorn.
But when she becomes wistful, she will try to remember the 2 a.m. alarm waking her up to catch an early flight. Or water ramping. Earlier this fall, she posted a photo on Facebook of her water ramp statistics. Over her career, she suited up 425 times in her dry suit, climbed 398,475 stairs (the equivalent of 253 Empire State Buildings), and practiced 6,325 jumps into the pool.
This hard work led to what she is most proud of accomplishing in career — that she can now do a backflip well (her top air in the two-jump mogul course).
“I was terrible at them 13 years ago,” she said, then remembered that inverted airs weren’t allowed in mogul competition until 12 years ago.
Kearney’s discipline and hard work will be missed by her teammates. Known for her consistency, skiing powerfully and often perfectly, finishing run after run even on icy moguls courses, Kearney raised the bar for her competitors as well as her teammates.
“She’s definitely done a lot for freestyle,” said Outtrim, who will miss this season while recovering from ACL surgery on her right knee. “It’s good for the younger girls now coming up to see how she trains and to see how much dedication it does take if you want to be that good.”
Of her awards, Kearney is most proud of winning the overall world cup title in 2013 — after she missed the first two competitions due to injury. The crystal globe represents a battle won. And her Olympic gold medal, won on a rainy night outside Vancouver in 2010, represents a run when everything went perfectly.
Her Olympic bronze medal still brings heartache though. For four years, her goal was to defend her Olympic gold medal; no mogul skier had two. But on the unforgiving Rosa Khutor course, her left ski shot out for an instant. And with it went the gold.
“I know everything happens for a reason,” she said, still choked up about it. “I’m just not yet sure why that was my destiny.”
What her destiny is after skiing remains to be determined. She’s a natural organizer, and she likes to cook. But after three terms at Dartmouth, she has yet to pick a major. And she will likely transfer to Westminster College in Salt Lake City, the Ivy League price tag running too high.
Kearney hopes to remain involved with the Olympic Games. In what capacity she does not know.
No matter where she ends up, she will eventually move back to New England.
“There’s a reason that for the 13 years on the team, I never left Vermont,” she said. “So yeah, I’ll be back.”
But she won’t return to mogul skiing.
“There’s a reason I’m saying it out loud, to hold myself accountable,” she said. “I know in my heart, I need to move on.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.