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Freestyle Ski Team Begins Quest To Be No. 1 In The World

By Paul D. Bowker | Dec. 11, 2014, 11:56 p.m. (ET)

Mac Bohonnon practices prior to the men's aerials qualification at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Feb. 17, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.

Hannah Kearney competes in the women's moguls qualification at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Feb. 6, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia. 

Hannah Kearney’s freestyle skiing path has carved itself into a legendary status.

In each of the last four years, only Kearney has won the FIS Moguls World Cup championship. Those four titles represent just half of the world cup championship crystal globes she has collected: five in moguls and another three as the overall freestyle champion. Freestyle skiing includes moguls and aerials.

When the Norwich, Vermont, native begins her first world cup dual moguls run of the season Saturday in Ruka, Finland, Kearney, a two-time Olympic medalist, will set into motion a season that she has said will be her last. And as the leader of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, she’ll be a favorite on just about every hill she steps onto.

"Hannah is focused on performance throughout the season," said first-year head coach Garth Hager, who has been the lead coach for Kearney during the last 10 years as an assistant coach. "She has identified this to be her last season and want to go out on top. She has a few more records to beat."

The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, in which a tearful Kearney settled for a moguls bronze medal after winning in 2010 in Vancouver, B.C., are a distant memory now. As the new season begins, Kearney and her teammates are focused on winning the moguls Nations Cup championship that was won by Canada last year.

Canada won the 2013-14 Nations Cup in women's moguls with 1,538 points, beating out the United States by 81 points. Nations Cup points are awarded at each world cup event based on top results. U.S. and Canadian skiers dominated women's moguls so completely that the third-place team in the Nations Cup standings, Japan, was nearly 1,000 points back of the United States.

The U.S. men's moguls team also finished runner-up to Canada in the 2013-14 Nations Cup. The men's and women's aerials teams both finished third as China won the title in both men’s and women’s.

“With a new (coaching) staff and some fresh faces on the world cup tour, the season is full of optimism,” Kearney said in an email interview from the U.S. training camp in Finland. “I hope that we can take back the Nations Cup from the Canadian team.”

It’s a goal that the entire team has embraced. The Americans were Nations Cup champions in 2012. 

“Our team has varying world cup experience but is unified in the goal of winning the mogul Nations Cup back from Canada,” said Hager. “It looks to be an exciting season as the veterans lead the charge and the younger athletes look to gain any advantage they can.”

It’s certainly a year of transition for the freestyle team. While Kearney has signaled this season as her last, three-time aerials Olympian Emily Cook retired after the Sochi Games. Scott Rawles, the team’s coach for eight years, stepped down, making way for Hager.

While the moguls world cup season begins Dec. 13 in Finland and the aerials season begins a week later in Beijing, two events will be held in the United States: Visa Freestyle International on Jan. 8-10 at Utah’s Deer Valley Resort and the Putnam Freestyle World Cup on Jan. 29-31 in Lake Placid, New York.

The world championships are set for Jan. 14-25 in Kreischberg, Austria. The national championships will be held March 26 through 29 in Steamboat, Colorado.

Both the mogul and aerial teams have a mix of highly experienced Olympians and rising talent.

It begins with Kearney, a three-time Olympian who has so dominated freestyle skiing that she won 16 consecutive world cup competitions over more than a year’s time in 2011 and 2012, a streak that no other skier in any discipline has matched. Overall, she has won 42 world cup events and medaled in 63.

She spent the summer training for her 11th world cup season, a career that began in 2004 at age 17.

“My goals are based on my summer training,” she said. “I plan to make subtle changes in my jump takeoffs and the path of my skis through the moguls in order to make my skiing as powerful and efficient as possible. My goal is to consistently ski the best I can at each competition while enjoying the entire world cup tour.”

Joining Kearney on the world cup circuit will be Olympic teammates Patrick Deneen, Heidi Kloser, and brothers Bradley and Byron Wilson. Also on the A team are Sho Kashima and Sophia Schwartz. Kashima and Kloser are expected to begin competing in mid-season after recovering from injuries. Bradley Wilson will miss the opener in Ruka due to an injury.

The aerials team includes the return of Olympians Ashley Caldwell and Mac Bohonnon, who placed fifth at the Sochi Games at age 18. Caldwell, a former gymnast whose acrobatic moves are equaled by few women in the world, finished 10th in both Sochi and Vancouver, and will be looked upon to help carry the team in the shadow of Cook’s retirement.

Bohonnon was named FIS World Cup Rookie of the Year after getting his first podium finish, a silver medal, in 2014. Also on the national team are Mike Rossi, the bronze medalist at the 2014 U.S. championships, and Dylan Ferguson, a two-time national champion who was named to the 2010 Olympic Team but is still seeking his first Olympic action after appendicitis kept him out in 2010.

Five Things To Know:

HAGER STEPS IN: Garth Hager is no stranger to the U.S. Freestyle Team or to Steamboat, Colorado, a popular area for freestylers. After skiing world cup moguls for nine years, Hager began his coaching career in 2002 as head coach of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. He joined the national team in 2004 and was technical moguls coach the last eight years in addition to being the lead coach for 2010 Olympic champion Hannah Kearney.

RECORD NUMBERS: Three-time Olympian Hannah Kearney’s numbers are impressive: two Olympic medals, including a gold medal in 2010; 63 world cup medals; 42 world cup wins; eight world cup championships. “The statistics highlight some of the proudest moments of my career goals,” she said. “They represent goals I’ve achieved and adversities I’ve overcome.”

LOOKING FOR DAYLIGHT: While training in Ruka, Finland, for the season-opening moguls world cup, the U.S. team had barely three hours of sunlight to work with due to the country‘s extreme northern location. Sun block definitely not needed. Saturday, the first day of competition, the sun will rise at 10:30 a.m. and set at 1:25 p.m.

WILSON BROTHERS: Bryon and Bradley Wilson both bring Olympic experience to the moguls team. Bryon won a bronze medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and younger brother Bradley made his Olympic debut last February in Sochi, finishing 20th. Bradley won the national championship in 2013 over a second-place finish by Bryon.

RISING IN AERIALS: Mac Bohonnon, a fifth-place finisher in his Olympic debut in Sochi, will be a skier to watch when the aerials world cup season begins Dec. 20 in Beijing. A second-place world cup finish clinched his spot on the U.S. Olympic Team and he’ll be looking for more podium finishes this season. He classified a new trick he has been working on as “top secret.”

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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