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Hannah Kearney On Why She Gives Back To Youth Olympians: “The Olympics Was The Most Positive Experience Of My Life”

By Brandon Penny | Feb. 14, 2016, 7:18 p.m. (ET)

Hannah Kearney celebrates with her gold medal during the women's moguls medal ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2010 in Vancouver. British Columbia.

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Everywhere Hannah Kearney walked in the Youth Olympic Village, she was reminded of her own Olympic experiences. Dining hall: check. Credentials: check. Security: check. Different sports and different nations: check. She could not get over the similarities between her three Olympic Winter Games and the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.

The retired freestyle moguls skier is in Norway this week as an Athlete Role Model for the second edition of the Winter Youth Games. As one of 15 ARMs at the Games, Kearney is making herself available to the Youth Olympians to answer their questions and provide guidance. She is also attending the Learn & Share programs, trying various sports and cheering on the competitors.

Tony Estanguet, Dominique Gisin, Hannah Kearney and Ross Powers play Pictionary with Youth Olympians at the "Chat with Champions" sessions on Feb. 15, 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway.

An Olympic gold and bronze medalist, as well as 13-year member of the national team, Kearney has an abundance of experience to pull from when inspiring the next generation of athletes.

Kearney took part in a “Chat with Champions” session on the topic of overcoming barriers Sunday night, alongside fellow Olympic champions Dominique Gisin, alpine skiing; Tony Estanguet, canoe/kayak; and Ross Powers, snowboarding. After the Q&A with athletes from across the globe, Kearney spoke to TeamUSA.org about why she wishes she could have been a Youth Olympian herself, overcoming her greatest obstacle and how she rebounded from that time a teammate slapped her.

What is your impression of the Youth Olympic Games so far?

I’m so impressed. I was serious when I said (during the “Chat with Champions”) that I’m jealous – what a cool event. It’s not only a fun event, but the most realistic way to practice for the Olympics. Even things like the credentials are the same; the uniforming process is the same; the fact that you have to go through security is the same; the dining hall setup is the same as the real Olympics, and I think it’s the absolute best way these kids could ever prepare for an Olympic debut at some point in the future or, for those who won’t make it to the Olympic Games, to experience something on par with the Olympics.

How would you have benefitted from experiencing a Youth Olympics when you were a teenaged athlete?

I think my first Olympics wouldn’t have felt as scary and pressure-filled and foreign to me as they did if I had experienced something like this where all the athletes from different countries are competing in one place at the same time. The only time I have experienced that is at the Olympics. Even junior worlds, that name is deceiving; it was just sport-specific, so having everyone together is really cool. And they’ve set this up so it’s very much a learning environment, too. There’s a lot of emphasis on education.

Why is it important for you to give back to the next generation?

Well it doesn’t take long for me talking about the Olympics to stir up all these emotions inside of me because it was the most positive experiences of my life, and so to share that and to stay involved in the Olympic spirit is genuine and really, really fun.

You’ve been retired for nearly a year. How has your experience in sport helped you post-athletics?

I think that’s a long-term question I can’t answer at this moment, other than to say the network of people you meet during your career are bound to help you. You have people you can reach out to, ask about their professional lives, learn about different career options and also just people you can ask for help when you don’t know what you’re doing next: where should you go to school, is there financial support for something. You have answers to those questions from the sports world and the networking.

How will athletes benefit off the field of play at these Games?

I think all these stations are really educational, so from the little things like I just learned how to cook trout today (with the Estonian cross-country skiing team). With something like that, you learned a very practical life skill regardless of whether you stay in sport or not. In theory, the friends these kids make here will compete with them at the Olympics in two or six years’ time, so they’re making lifelong friendships. The exposure to different cultures is something you don’t normally get at this young age, so I think they’re at an advantage over their peers who are not here.

What are some of the questions you’ve been fielding from athletes?

Tonight I got a question about how to deal with your teammates and I thought that was really interesting. I didn’t actually have a great answer because it’s certainly something you just struggle through and live through, but I think it’s really wise of her to ask because it’s easy to just say, ‘Oh, we either get along or we don’t,’ but it’s a process. The fact that she wants to do something about getting along with her teammates shows a lot of maturity, so that, I thought, was the most insightful question.

You mentioned during the Q&A that a teammate once slapped you.

It was a silly situation, but when you travel the world with these people, you never expect it’s going to get so bad and there will be so much animosity that it leads to that, but all was forgiven and mended in the long run. It was the end of an intense Olympic season where tempers are running high and there’s a lot of stress on everyone.

What is your advice for dealing with those situations?

It’s worth it to get it all out there now. The longer you wait and think, ‘Oh maybe this issue blow over,’ usually it doesn’t and usually you bottle it up inside. And if it gets to a point where it’s affecting your own results as an athlete, then it’s definitely not worth it. I think Dominique (Gisin) actually gave better advice, which is that you don’t have to like everyone, but you need to be civil because they become your family whether you like it or not.

Tonight’s “Chat with Champions” session revolved around overcoming barriers to achieve greatness. What is the greatest barrier you faced in your career?

I think the (torn ACL in February 2007) just because it takes you out for an entire season. It’s sort of the most simplistic barrier, but injuries for that reason are hard; they’re frustrating, but they’re simple. There are simple things you can do to overcome them. A lot of it’s how much effort you put in, how much you focus on coming back from the injury and how much help you get. Those are all things that help you in the long run. It’s hard to call that even a barrier because athletes have much harder barriers. I had a very lucky, supportive childhood.

What is the one question you wish you could have asked an Olympian when you were 15?

That’s a good question. Whether it was a question or not, I think I needed more encouragement when it came to physical training. I grew up playing youth sports, and in high school I used that as my training, so when I graduated from high school – which happened to be a year before the Torino Olympics – I sort of lost my training. I didn’t have this sport-specific training or physical gym program I was following, and as a result I had a lost year, where I was just not going to the gym, not following a program, and it affected my results. So it was the injury that actually focused me in again on needing a strength program that I would focus on day by day, and I grew to love that structure.

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Hannah Kearney