A bumpy ride ends in gold for Kearney

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — If, by the end of the Vancouver Games, the Canadians remain desperate for the first gold medal in their history of hosting the Olympics, perhaps they can petition Hannah Kearney to split hers and leave a piece for posterity.

After all, the first American gold medalist of these Olympics is half-Canadian, her mother, Jill, a Montreal native. Because Kearney grew up in Vermont, she wore a star-flecked uniform on Saturday night, and skiing on icy mountains in the Northeast prepared her to blitz the course at Cypress Mountain amid dank conditions and win the ladies’ moguls gold ahead of the reigning champion, Canada’s Jennifer Heil.

Kearney’s lineage only deepened the disappointment for Canada, which hoped Heil would do what her countrymen couldn’t at the Montreal and Calgary Games: strike Au instead of Ag. For Canada, it was another day, another silver.

Hannah Kearney beat out Canadian favorite Jennifer Heil for the gold.

“I pretended that the Canadian cheers were also for me,” said Kearney, whose loudest support came from her father, Tom, who couldn’t wait to celebrate with her. Doing so proved treacherous. As he bounded the gate, a security guard tackled him, unaware who he was.

“My daughter won a medal,” he said, and it bought him entrée to the bottom of the course, where he yelled for Kearney to no avail. Finally, she heard her dad’s voice and jogged over.

“I’m so proud of you, Hannah,” Tom said. “How does it feel?”

“Surreal as heck,” she said.

Understandably so. She bombed out of the 2006 Olympics in 22nd place after entering as the favorite. Since then, she tore an anterior cruciate ligament, suffered a long-lasting concussion and continued nonetheless traversing moguls courses 300 knee-, back- and brain-jarring yards at a time.

Over the last nine months in particular, as she won the 2009 World Cup title, Kearney honed her preparation to a science. Every day, following her workouts, she punched data from that day’s activities into a computer. Before the preliminary round Saturday, her trainer, Alex Moore, handed Kearney a card. When she opened it, she saw a lightning bolt on the front. Inside were the totals: more than 25,000 steps climbed, 14,000 jumps with a rope or off a trampoline, 1,000 tricks off ramps into a pool of water and 126 hours spent on a bike.

Following the epic sessions, Kearney would drive home visualizing winning gold. Never did she imagine doing so by such a large margin.

The stage set itself wonderfully for Kearney, who earned the high score in qualifications and the right to ski last. Teammate Shannon Bahrke, pink hair peeking from beneath her helmet, sat in first place with only Heil and Kearney’s runs remaining. Bahrke settled for bronze, the others putting together magnificent runs as rain intensified and wind shook the impossibly tall trees along the course.

When Heil crossed the finish line to an ovation from the partisan crowd, she wasn’t sure whether she eclipsed Bahrke’s marks. Even after her score showed on the jumbo television overlooking the mountain, she mouthed, “Did I get the score?”

She had, and Kearney stood atop Cypress and smiled. Really. About to embark on a career-making run, trying to win the United States’ first ladies’ moguls gold since Donna Weinbrecht in 1992, Kearney thought about how the rain slicked down the snow enough that she could shred the middle part of the course, and, yeah, that brought on a little grin.

“I was thinking, I want this gold medal,” she said. “I heard Jenn’s score. I heard the roar of the crowd. I knew I was going to have to ski well. So I went for it.”

On the first jump, Kearney went for a back layout, turning head over heels, a pair of pigtails wagging out of holes in her helmet. Kearney used to hate flipping. It never felt natural, she said, and so she avoided it for the longest time.

Kearney landed cleanly, then tore through the moguls before a 360-degree helicopter on the final jump. Seconds later, she nearly spun out as she pumped her fist, about to learn how a gold medal tastes.

It became official soon thereafter. Kearney’s scores in all three categories — turns, jumps and time — were the competition’s best. She totaled a career-record 26.63 to Heil’s 25.69, a slaughter in a sport that often comes down to hundredths of a point.

“I really do feel like I won the silver today,” Heil said. “This medal is for Canada. … This is our Games.”

Maybe so, but this was Kearney’s night. She had just won a gold medal, the greatest thing her sport offers, and four years of waiting paid off in less than 30 seconds of skiing. This was so far from 22nd place, from disappointment, from oceans of tears caused by another 30-second run gone terribly wrong.

It wasn’t galling, then, when she asked for just one thing following her win.

“I really want to be part of an Olympic montage,” Kearney said.

The American one, she meant. Canada will have to wait another day to start its highlight reel.

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