KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Four years ago, Amercian Hannah Kearney was the fast-talking, mogul-shredding young skier upsetting an Olympic champion.
Saturday night, the 27-year-old Vermont native became the graceful yet defeated Olympic champion as 19-year-old Canadian Justine Dufour-Lapointe and her 22-year-old sister, Chloe, forced one of the most accomplished and consistent skiers to the third step of the podium.
“I know it’s up to me to try and see the positive,” said a tearful Kearney, who became only the second U.S. women’s mogul skier to win two Olympic medals with a score of 71.63. Justine’s score was 74.80 and her sister’s silver medal score was 72.20.
“I mean, I did win a medal for the U.S., and that will help our medal count,” she said. “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, and unfortunately that’s what it feels like right now — that I was at my best in the past.”
Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe were giddy in celebrating their accomplishment, but they didn’t see it as them beating the 2010 Olympic champion.
“The course was hard,” said Justine Dufour-Lapointe through a thick French-Canadian accent. “It was difficult for everyone. Three runs in a row, we never did that before. ... But I haven’t beaten someone. I just won. And that means I give the best run. It was me — it was my run that won. But she also gives an incredible show and she gave it all, like all of us. She is an incredible lady and always will be.”
The oldest Dufour-Lapointe sister, Maxime, didn’t make the super final, finishing 12th, and she also shed tears, even as she celebrated the accomplishment of her sisters.
“I’m very proud of them,” Maxime said. “I’m lucky because I have the two best in the world to work with and get better. Hannah did her best. The pressure was definitely on her. She’s done a tremendous job over the past years at staying at the top, of being a leader, of inspiring us to learn from her because she is so mentally strong.”
Known for her straightforward approach and nerves of steel, Kearney has often said that pressure is something athletes put on themselves.
And while she felt the difficult course played to her strengths of near flawless turning at lightening-fast speeds, she said she never could quite get comfortable with the top section of bumps.
“It’s just deep moguls, which I like,” Kearney said. “I really think it suited me. But you have to hit the insides of them, otherwise you get thrown off course.”
And that, unfortunately, is what the woman who has won every prize her sport has to offer said happened to her twice in the three-round final.
“That top jump, I was having trouble with it today, as you could tell,” she said. “There were two big turns, and I was just hitting the first one too hard, so I was getting shot to the wide part of the second turn. I executed a little better on the second run, but it was catching me.”
Kearney qualified Thursday with the best score. But that only affected the order in which the women started.
The format for the Olympic mogul final is a brutal test of consistency. The field of 20 skiers was trimmed to 12 and then to six. In the super final of six, the Olympic champion was determined. Scores are not combined, which requires skiers to put down their best every run.
Kearney’s struggles were obvious on the first run as her legs uncharacteristically flayed as she navigated the moguls leading into the first jump. She sat in seventh place after one round, but she didn’t panic.
“It doesn’t help your confidence, but I had to think about it,” she said of trying to make the adjustments necessary to ensure she landed that first jump cleanly. “Usually I don’t have to think about it. I just do the layout and ski out of it. I had to think on that trick to try and avoid having any issues on the exit. It all happens very quickly and it’s hard to adjust.”
She changed places on the course once, but said she left the rest of her routine intact. It has, after all, worked so well for her for so many years. Coming into the Olympic Games, Kearney had earned 59 podiums in 103 career starts — 39 of those victories. She owns a win streak (in 2011) of 16 straight victories, a feat unheard of by a female mogul skier. Like most skiers, she’s dealt with knee injuries, broken ribs, and a lacerated liver, but she's never shied away from pushing herself to her physical limits.
She said she felt comfortable as she began her final run.
“I didn’t feel nervous, but I’m sure the nerves create a physical reaction in your body and makes you stiffer,” She said. “I think today, I just wasn’t at my best.”
As she stood just a few feet from the celebrating sisters, who held hands as they took their places on the podium, Kearney’s heartbreak was, as most of her races were, about what she had done to herself.
“I think I really gave it away,” Kearney said, as tears fell continuously throughout the seemingly endless post-competition interviews. “I felt like it was mine to ski for. I did try my best. I guess the only positive I can see is that I didn’t lose because I was too conservative or being complacent. I pushed, and there was one huge turn that caught me.”
She had two near misses and attributed her strength training as the only reason she was able to stay on her feet. She also took some small comfort in that after finishing seventh in the first round, she came back in the second round and placed first before earning third place in the third and final round of competition.
“So this bronze represents more of a battle than an accomplishment,” she said.