This bronze represents more of a battle than an accomplishment. And I know it’s up to me to try and see the positive. … I did try my best. I guess the only positive I can see is that I didn’t lose because I was too conservative. ... I pushed. —Hannah Kearney
SOCHI, Russia — Her green eyes red and wet, Hannah Kearney embraced the disappointment.
She let it wash over her without resistance.
As the candid, driven mogul skier has always done, she owned it with raw honesty.
Being third was not what she came to do in Sochi. It is not the reason she battled through knee injuries, a lacerated liver and broken ribs. It’s not the reason she pushed through the fear of learning inverted tricks when the sport demanded it. And it’s not the reason that she logged every workout, every day so she could find ways to improve in ways so minute, only she could see the difference.
The 27-year-old Vermont resident did all she did, sacrificed all she could, to be the first in her sport to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.
Instead, she leaves Sochi with bronze.
While she knows that any medal is better than no medal, she couldn’t lie about how painful it was to come so close to a dream and watch it slip through her fingers.
The Olympics are all about dreams.
They're about hope and idealism and the kind of possibility that most of the time eludes us in the harsh reality and monotony of everyday life. While all sports offer opportunities to shine, to inspire, the rarity of the Olympics makes the medals they offer so coveted that athletes sacrifice nearly every ordinary comfort for even the most remote chance at gold.
In ice rinks and on ski slopes, athletes have experienced the kind of joy they imagined but only now understand. They’ve done that alongside others who feel a kind of gut-wrenching heartache that not many people will ever understand.
Some talk freely about their pain. Others prefer to release their disappointment in private. But the agony is obvious.
Sunday it was a legendary alpine skier and owner of five Olympic medals who illustrated the disappointment of a goal unrealized.
Watching Bode Miller squat on his skis, staring at the snow, as the once raucous crowd looked on in silence made the pain palpable. He wasn’t the only one to suffer disappointment in his quest, as the first two days have been full of the most delightful happy endings and the most soul-searing sad stories.
Kearney has been such a professional throughout her career, graciously and patiently fielding questions — win or lose — that when she left Saturday night’s press conference, every person in the room stood and offered her a standing ovation.
Appreciation is the only reward for some who compete in these games. They’ll accept the love of fellow competitors, the congratulations of friends and family, and the thank-yous from fans who are often inspired in their own battles by these athletes who seek excellence, sometimes against desperate odds.
The joy of U.S. snowboarders Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson gives youngsters who see themselves in their stories hope about their own path — in or outside of athletics. Watching Jenny Jones win bronze in slopestyle snowboarding might plant a seed in the mind of her fellow Britons that one doesn’t need to be limited by circumstance.
If there aren’t mountains in your home country, get a job as a maid and spend your spare time learning a sport that you love.
Maybe the most valuable aspect of sport is that inspiration doesn’t just come when an athlete or team wins. It can come in watching a defeat, a disappointment, a heartbreak.
Especially when that competitor doesn’t hide from the fact that it hurts. The pain is part of the process, maybe even part of the reward. On Saturday night, simply staying on her feet was a struggle for Kearney. It was not the experience anyone expected the woman who won 16 consecutive World Cups two years ago to have in Sochi.
“So this bronze represents more of a battle than an accomplishment,” she said. “And I know it’s up to me to try and see the positive. I did try my best. I guess the only positive I can see is that I didn’t lose because I was too conservative. ... I pushed.”
If Kearney retires, that’s a valuable last lesson she leaves us. Life is unpredictable; it’s painful; it’s beautiful; and it’s rarely what you expect.
But if you embrace your opportunities, if you push, and if you give your best, you're guaranteed a special experience.
The one thing you can’t do is hide from the pain.
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