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Hannah Kearney, the gold standard in moguls

Hannah Kearney finished first in the qualifying for moguls Thursday. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Hannah Kearney finished first in the qualifying for moguls Thursday.

SOCHI, Russia — Hannah Kearney likes her quiet life in Norwich, Vt., where she lives in her childhood home, cooks cottage-cheese pancakes for breakfast, and keeps her Olympic gold medal in a fireproof box below her bed.

She will tell you not much has changed since she took the women’s moguls title at the 2010 Vancouver Games. She doesn’t mind that her career continues in relative anonymity.

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“I think everything worked out for a reason,” said Kearney. “I’m very grateful that, for the most part, I’m able to focus on my training and stay in my routine.

“Of course, when you see other athletes on huge billboards, you go, ‘Well, why not me?’ But that’s not why I’m in the sport. That’s not why I want to go to the Olympics. Those things can be a distraction. I have absolutely nothing to be jealous of or complain about.

“I’m not Lindsey Vonn. I’m not whoever else is out there. I try not to even pay attention to those things. I’m not a figure skater. I’m not a gymnast. I’m a female mogul skier.”

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Many athletes would gladly trade places with Kearney, 27, the gold-medal favorite in women’s moguls at the Sochi Olympics and the top qualifier Thursday, which gave her an automatic berth in Saturday’s final. She competes with unmatched consistency, rarely missing a podium on the World Cup circuit and usually taking the top spot.

From late February 2011 to late February 2012, Kearney won 14 straight World Cup events in moguls or dual moguls. A victory in Sochi would make Kearney the first freestyle skier to win back-to-back Olympic golds.

Still, Kearney doesn’t take her success for granted. At the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park where the women’s final will take place under the lights, she expects to be challenged for gold by Canada’s Dufour-Lapointe sisters. Two of the three — Justine and Chloe — could end up on the podium.

“It’s never like, ‘Oh, I just need to make it down and I’m going to win,’ ” said Kearney. “It always feels like people are pushing you. If they’re not pushing me, I’m pushing myself.

“I don’t know how you get motivation if you don’t have it. I’ve been lucky in that sense. I’ve just been driven. Winning a lot, you could get complacent. But if I make a small mistake, I’m motivated the next week to fix whatever that mistake was.”

That was true after Kearney competed in the qualifying round: She was frustrated because she “didn’t fully get my grab on the bottom air.”

But Kearney has come a long way from her Olympic debut, when she arrived at the 2006 Turin Games as a skiing prodigy, reigning world moguls champion, and gold-medal favorite. Back then, the wide-eyed teenager was overwhelmed by the world’s largest winter sports stage and quickly overcome by nerves. She failed to make the final and finished in 22d place.

“I was 19 years old, just graduated from high school,” said Kearney. “You can’t really prepare for it. The only version you have of those events is what you see on TV, and being there is quite different. Eight years ago seems like a version of myself I barely remember.”

Between her Turin disappointment and her Vancouver gold, Kearney fought through injuries (a torn ACL and concussion) and financial difficulties when the US moguls team temporarily lost funding.

Coming back from the ACL injury sustained in February 2007, Kearney learned that the natural athleticism that helped her win high school state soccer and track championships and placed her on the US Ski team at 16 was not enough. She introduced moguls-specific exercises into her workouts and became more disciplined overall with her fitness regimen.

It is a routine that worked for Vancouver and that she largely continues today, splitting training time between Norwich and the US Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“For the most part, my life has returned to the same as it was before Vancouver,” said Kearney, who called throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park one of the best perks of winning gold. “The success of the Olympics is not something I think about every day.

“My schedule and my goals are the same. I’m training for the World Cup and Olympics. I’m training for my sport and trying to get better.”

Yet Kearney has added college classes to her routine, studying at Dartmouth when her schedule allows. As for subjects, she is “dabbling in everything,” taking courses in international politics, environmental justice, economics, and the Crusades. Asked if any of the course work helped with managing her skiing career, Kearney laughed.

“No, it didn’t at all,” she said. “I was kind of hoping they would. They haven’t helped me in my travels, but keep in mind I haven’t really gone to school for a full year. I haven’t gotten a lot of knowledge about any one topic.

“I don’t know what I might major in. Luckily, Dartmouth is a liberal arts school and kind of encourages that. You’re required to take all sorts of classes and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”

Although Kearney was accepted into the class of 2015, her skiing has put her behind schedule. When she finishes competing full-time, she’ll have more opportunity to study. But she doesn’t know exactly what the future holds when it comes to her career.

“Right now, I’m not looking past Sochi,” said Kearney. “I’m thinking one more year. I don’t know that this is my last year.

“Given my personality, I like to know, have a plan. I imagine skiing one more season. But it’s hard to answer that question because I’m motivated [for Sochi].

“I think I’ll reevaluate after that.”

At the moment, defending her Olympic title is enough to think about.

“I know everyone wants to beat me even more,” said Kearney. “There’s no place to go at the top but to fall or stay there. It’s easier to be the underdog. There’s scientific research about that.

“I’m not the underdog. If you’re an Olympic medalist, you’re never the underdog. As soon as I take a sigh of relief, that’s when they swoop in there and get you.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.
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