KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — One way or another, Hannah Kearney knew tears would follow her much-anticipated Olympics race. She had started competitive skiing when she was just 9 years old. Now 27, she has been among the best mogul skiers in the world for several years and spent most of her life visualizing success.
And now this.
“I didn’t ski the best run of my life, which is exactly what I was planning on doing,” she said. “But life, as everyone knows, doesn’t always go according to plan.”
Her face was red and cheeks already soaked with tears.
“Usually there’s a reason and you learn from it,” she continued. “So despite my outpouring of emotion right now . . .”
Suddenly, it became too much. The words were trapped in Kearney’s throat.
“I’m sorry. I’m a girl, and I worked really hard these last four years,” she sobbed.
Kearney came to these Sochi Games to defend her gold medal from the Vancouver Olympics, not feign excitement over the bronze medal that hung from her neck.
Moments earlier, the New Hampshire native had stood on the lowest step of the medals podium, alongside two talented Canadian sisters who won gold and silver. An Olympics volunteer with a microphone opened a post-race news conference by innocently asking Kearney how good this medal must feel.
“Unfortunately, doesn’t feel very good,” Kearney said. “It feels better to stand on top of the podium.”
Keys to the skis
At the Olympics, successes are often defined by goals. One athlete can spend a lifetime celebrating a third-place finish. But Kearney knows what gold tastes like, and in the moments following her race late Saturday night, all she could think about was what she failed to do here, how a small flub on her final run could prove so costly.
“I feel like I let myself down,” she said matter-of-factly. “I wanted that gold medal, and I skied for it. But I made a huge mistake, and you don’t make the Olympics when you make a mistake in your run.”
As the top finisher in the second round of the finals, Kearney had the benefit of skiing last and watching the five other finalists. When her name was finally called, Kearney got off to a shaky start, hitting an early mogul hard, lifting her left leg and slightly losing balance.
“When you’re competing, you have so much adrenaline that I didn’t really realize the mistake was that bad,” she said.
She recovered but couldn’t do enough to pass the Canadian sisters. Judges gave Kearney a final score of 21.49. Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe were nearly flawless on their final runs and finished 1-2. Justine posted a 22.44 and Chloe a 21.66. Even though it was dark and cold at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and midnight was just minutes away, the sisters’ collective excitement warmed the crowd.
“It just totally rocks,” Justine said. “It is just really amazing. . . . I really gave it my all. I felt the pressure, but I tried to just put that away, and I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to roar and people will see me and remember who the real Justine is.’ ”
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
Justine is 19, and Chloe is 22. Even Kearney pointed out how bright their futures appear. The veteran freestyle skier tried to assess the competition, her career and her future in the news conference but cried through most of it.
She had won the Americans’ second medal of these Olympics — not far away from the mogul hill, snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg won the first medal of the Sochi Games earlier in the day — but in the immediate aftermath, Kearney felt nothing like a winner.
“I will try my absolute best to let it go,” she said. “I think that will help my happiness levels moving forward. You can’t live in the past, and this moment is now already over. So I have to look forward to the next thing. Unfortunately, all of my training and my focus has been on this moment, and now that it’s over, you have to definitely reevaluate and come up with some new goals.
“It’s tough when you know your Olympic career is over and it did not end as well as you were imagining.”
She had trained for years to look straight ahead, focus on the finish line. On a cold Russian night, Kearney realized she might have finally reached it.