Her braids bobbing under her helmet strap and her smile lighting up the rainy night, moguls skier Hannah Kearney won the first gold medal for Team USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. In Sochi, she is favored to do it again.
“You feel that you can almost set the tone for the country,” Kearney said after garnering her 59th world cup podium finish in Lake Placid, N.Y., in mid-January. “I know more people are excited about the Olympics in the beginning, so hopefully they’ll be tuning in on the first day.”
In Sochi, the women’s moguls competition is again scheduled for the first night of finals. The other medal events on Feb. 8 are women’s cross-country skiathlon, men’s biathlon 10-kilometer sprint, men’s 5,000-meter speedskating and men’s slopestyle snowboarding. Team USA speedskater Jonathan Kuck and slopestyler Chas Guldemond are also medal contenders. But none of them has dominated their sport like Kearney.
Since winning the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver four years ago, Kearney has racked up 31 wins in 42 world cups — a 74 percent win ratio. She has also earned a world championship gold medal and six overall world cup titles.
What’s led to such consistency?
“For one, confidence plays a lot,” said head moguls coach Garth Hager.
And in 27-year-old Kearney, confidence along with intensity and drive seem innate. Kearney’s dad, Tom, was standing course-side in Lake Placid last month and said that his daughter has always been driven. As an example, he recalled a parent-teacher conference when Hannah was in second grade.
“The teacher said, ‘Hannah’s a great student and great with the kids, but I’d like to see her lighten up a little bit,’” remembered Tom. “That was my exact thought. She was so driven sometimes you wondered if she was having fun.”
But over the years, Tom has noticed that Hannah has backed off some.
“I think she’s figured out how to harness that drive to not put it into overdrive all the time because you don’t need overdrive all the time,” he said.
Hannah is having more fun than she’s had before, he added, and he thinks that this has led to her consistency in high-pressure competitions.
“Success does that, but being an older, experienced skier also is a big part of that,” he added.
He also credits Hannah’s brother, Denny, who is currently playing semi-pro hockey with Les Diables Rouges de Briancon (the Briancon Red Devils), a team in France.
“[Denny] is a very gifted athlete, a very good player, but he goes about sports in a very different way, and they feed off each other,” his father said.
“Hannah drives him and pushes him a little harder, and he gets her thinking about the little things that he’s really good at figuring out.” Hannah is also a very hard worker who does not skimp on training. During the off-season, she relentlessly practices her jumps on Lake Placid’s water ramps and trampolines — turning what was once a weakness into a strength.
“At this point, her jumps are very consistent every time,” said Hager.
Kearney seems to have mastered the mental game as well, channeling nervousness “to activate herself and charge.”
“One of her famous sayings is that being nervous is a made-up thing,” said Hager.
While she may have mastered her nerves, she’s also gotten into her competitors’ heads. Justine Dufour-Lapointe from Canada, the only moguls skier to have beaten Kearney this year, said that she only can ski well when she is not thinking about Kearney and instead is focusing on her own run instead.
When asked what it takes to beat Kearney, other competitors shrugged their shoulders.
“I guess making her push the speed?” said U.S. teammate Heidi Kloser, more question than answer.
“I don’t know, I’ve never done it before,” Kloser added, then laughed.
Except Kloser did beat Kearney in the 2013-14 Lake Placid World Cup by skiing the fastest final run — and because Kearney bobbled slightly near the top of her final run.
Feeling fatigued after back-to-back wins in Deer Valley, Utah, earlier in January, Kearney was not quite on her game in Lake Placid or Val St. Come, Quebec, the final two world cup moguls events before the Sochi Games. Uncharacteristically, she finished third in Lake Placid and fourth in Val St. Come.
But with three weeks between those world cups and now, Kearney has had plenty of time to rest. Her goal Saturday is to become the first moguls skier ever to defend an Olympic gold medal.
Aware that a gold medal could again set the tone for Team USA in Sochi, Kearney knows that her responsibility is her skiing, not thinking about the outcome — or the after party.
After her victory in Vancouver, Kearney remembers asking, “Is this the first one? Is this the first gold?” When told yes, she then knew that she could sit back and enjoy the rest of the Games cheering for her country. The U.S. Olympic Team won nine gold medals and 37 total medals in Vancouver — more than in any other Winter Games. U.S. freestyle skiers won four of those medals, including Kearney’s gold, and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association won 21 total.
“I obviously cannot take any credit for that, but it was a great Olympics,” she added. “I hope we can do even better in Sochi.”
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.