KRASNAYA POLYANA , Russia — With tears streaming down her cheeks, a disappointed Hannah Kearney said her bronze medal in women’s moguls “represents a battle, more than an accomplishment” and that it felt like she gave away gold. She was trying to make history as the first Olympic freeskier to win consecutive gold medals. Now, it appears her Olympic experience will end in bitter disappointment.
The defending gold medalist struggled throughout the finals Saturday night, breaking form and rhythm when weaving through the moguls that followed the first jump. The normally consistent competitor looked shaky her first run, but rebounded in her second. Then, with the gold medal in the balance on her third and final run under the lights at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Kearney stumbled again after the first jump. Her left ski shot out to the side and took with it any chance of victory.
But true to her style on the slopes, Kearney held nothing back when discussing what happened. She was candid about how third place felt, especially after her win at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Reflecting on her more than decade-long career, Kearney became particularly emotional.
“It’s very difficult coming off of a gold because from there, and I’ve said it myself, from the top there’s nowhere to go but stay there or fall,” said Kearney. “And I fell today. Only two places, but enough that it really feels like a disappointment to me.
“I know it’s up to me to see the positive. I did win a medal for the US. That will help our medal count. 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. Unfortunately, that’s what it feels like right now, that I was at my best in the past.”
The Canadian Dufour-Lapointe sisters might disagree. Usually, they are looking up at Kearney on medal podiums around the world. But Saturday night, Justine earned gold with a score of 22.44, while her older sister Chloe took silver with 21.66. Kearney’s bronze-winning final score was 21.49.
“I think Hannah did her best,” said Maxime Dufour-Lapointe, the oldest of the sisters and 12th-place finisher. “The pressure was definitely on her because she was the defending gold medalist. She has done a tremendous job over the last year staying on top of the World Cup and being a leader and inspiring us and learning from her because she’s just so mentally strong. Today, Chloe and Justine just ended up being better. That’s the end of the story.”
Kearney knew the Dufour-Lapointe sisters would be her toughest challengers entering the Olympics. Justine, 19, a precocious talent reminiscent of Kearney when she made her Olympic debut as a wide-eyed 19-year-old at the 2006 Turin Games, is the most successful of the three sisters. Chloe, 22, finished fifth at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s going to be rough to hear the Canadian anthem,” said Kearney of Sunday’s medal ceremony. “But you know what, only one person can win, and I guess it wasn’t my turn. I had my chance. Unfortunately, it was in the past. I was able to beat [the Dufour-Lapointe sisters] most of the time, to be honest. Yeah, it happened a couple of times where one of them beat me, but I felt like I was the person who beat myself today. I don’t feel like they beat me.”
It’s hard to blame Kearney for thinking that way. She has been the most dominant competitor in freestyle skiing most of her career, making 59 podiums (39 wins) in 103 World Cup events. Her consistent turns and willingness to try big tricks in the jumps sets her runs apart. Kearney’s desire to go big off the first jump with a layout pushed her closer to the moguls below and created a chain reaction that left her panicked and off balance on the exit turns.
“The only positive I can see is that I didn’t lose because I was too conservative or being complacent and thinking, ‘Oh, they’ll just give me the gold medal if I make it down,’ ” said Kearney, who lives in Norwich, Vt. “I pushed and there was one huge [exit] turn that got me.”
Added US moguls coach Garth Hager: “She didn’t have her perfect run from the start, so she had to battle back. In her last run, you definitely saw her battle. 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 off the bottom. She wasn’t going to give up. She fought to the very end.”
As it became clear the gold medal would come down to the Dufour-Lapointe sisters and Kearney, the Extreme Park crowd chanted “Ca-na-da” and “U-S-A.” Fans also gasped with each Kearney bobble. Among the spectators, Kearney’s mother Jill and brother Denny watched the event unfold. It was difficult for Jill Kearney to see her daughter uncharacteristically struggle.
“I know the way she can ski and I know what she wants to do, and it wasn’t her best night,” said Jill. “She battled with all her heart. She was incredibly strong. You could see her pulling it back in, like, ‘No, I’m not going to give up.’ ”
But that was little consolation for Kearney, who wanted to make history, not take home bronze.