KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Hannah Kearney came to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games with one goal: to defend her Olympic gold medal in moguls. Instead, she will take home the bronze. Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, whom Kearney has battled all season, went 1-2 for Canada.
“I really feel I gave it away,” Kearney said through tears. “It was mine to ski for, and I did try my best.”
But she knew the stakes were high and that she would be disappointed with any medal but gold. She had said as much for the past four years.
“From the top, there’s nowhere to go but stay there or fall,” she said. “And I fell today, only two places, but enough that it really feels like a disappointment to me.”
Kearney led qualifying on Thursday night. But then on a clear Saturday night at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, she struggled with four deep moguls after the top jump. The first run in the three-run final — a format never used until this Olympic Games — she was uncharacteristically ragged after landing her back full, and she barely qualified for the next run. She won the second run but still struggled, her ski tips crossing as she tried to regain her form on the unforgiving course.
Then in the six-woman third final, her left ski shot out oh-so briefly. And with it went the gold medal.
“It was a tricky because she was going a little larger off the top jump,” explained U.S. freestyle coach Garth Hager. “So it didn’t give her much time to prepare for the first turn, where some of the other girls were going quite a bit smaller and were able to get a lot of snow contact before they hit the first turn.”
Known for her consistency and focus, Kearney had to use every ounce of mental strength to battle through the night.
“She was the competitor tonight,” added Hager. “She didn’t have her perfect run from the start, so she had to battle back. In her last run, she could have easily pulled out coming into the bottom jump. But she dug down and gritted her teeth and had one of her better jumps.”
But for 27-year-old Kearney, who hoped that Ben & Jerry’s would name an ice cream flavor after her if she defended her Olympic gold medal, she was not consoled. The bronze represented “a battle more than an accomplishment.”
“I did win a medal for the U.S., that will help our medal count,” she conceded, trying to see the positive through her tears. “But as you can hear in my voice, it’s really hard. No one in life wants the best part of their career to be behind them.”
Her family, friends, teammates and competitors know differently. And they knew the pressure was on the defending gold medalist.
“I think Hannah did her best,” said Maxime Dufour-Lapointe, Justine and Chloe’s older sister. “She has done a tremendous job over the last year staying on top of the world cup and being a leader and inspiring us. We’ve learned from her because she’s just so mentally strong. Today, Chloe and Justine just ended up being better.”
Eliza Outtrim, who finished sixth in her first Winter Games, praised Kearney for her skiing, leadership and her sense of humor, though no one but the Canadians were laughing at Rosa Khutor.
Jill Kearney, who traveled to Sochi from Vermont, shared her daughter’s pain, while brother Denny, who was on a bus coming home from a college hockey game in 2010 when his sister won gold, looked glum.
“It was tough because I know the way she can ski, and I know what she wants to do, and it wasn’t her best night,” Jill said.
It was also a tough night for Heather McPhie, who finished 13th, missing the second final by one spot. And it was a tough Games for Heidi Kloser, who crashed on the first jump in training on Thursday and was unable to compete. She suffered a completely torn ACL and partially torn MCL in her right knee, as well as an impact fracture of her femur and impact bruise on her tibia plateau on her right leg, but still marched in the Opening Ceremony.
Kearney will receive her medal in a ceremony on Sunday evening.
“It’s going to be rough to hear the Canadian anthem,” she said. “But you know what, only one person can win, and I guess it wasn’t my turn. I had my chance.”
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.