Olympic Freestyle Skiing: Comeback Queen Hannah Kearney Seeks Final Gold Medal

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2014

Hannah Kearney, of the United States, celebrates on the podium after winning the women's freestyle World Cup moguls event Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

American Hannah Kearney is already the face of freestyle skiing moguls. Now, in her final Olympic Games, she’s aiming to defend her Vancouver title and go out on top.

Along the way, Kearney is trying to make history. The 27-year-old is trying to become the first freestyle skier to ever win two Olympic gold medals. 

Kearney has been competing on the world stage for 12 years. Her career includes multiple devastating injuries, big-stage disappointments and, most importantly, incredible comebacks. She will head into Saturday’s final as the favorite, after finishing the qualification round on Thursday in first place.

In her qualification run, she made the downhill moguls course—with the jarring bumps and jumps—look like a walk in the park. But it hasn’t always been that easy for her.

Back in 2006, the 19-year-old Kearney came into the Games as a favorite as well. She had just won the world championships the year before, and a Torino gold was supposed to establish her as a superstar.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. Overcome by her nerves and unable to get into the right mindset for a race, Kearney completely botched her run. She made a mess of even the easiest parts of her ski and ended up finishing in 22nd place. She cried at the bottom of the hill as she realized she wouldn’t even make it to the final.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 25:  Freestyle skier Hannah Kearney poses for a portrait during the USOC Portrait Shoot on April 25, 2013 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Things didn’t get any easier from there for Kearney. She tore her ACL in 2007, and then, after a difficult recovery, she suffered a concussion in her first race back. Overall, she sat on the sidelines for the majority of two years.

But the former teen prodigy ended up using those years to her advantage. She relished her time at home—her first significant time off from competing since she was nine years old. She became a diet and fitness guru. She adopted a dog. She learned to be at peace with herself and realized how much she really did love to ski.

When Kearney came back onto the tour, she was different. She no longer expected to win because she was talented. She knew that she could win because of all of the hard work that she had put in. She was nicer, too, finally embracing the company of her teammates and competitors.

All of this showed in her skiing. She finished the 2008-09 season at the top of the World Cup standings. Then, back on the Olympic stage, she erased any and all Torino ghosts when she qualified in first place and followed it up with a golden run in the finals. Four years removed from tears of disappointment, she was now crying tears of joy as she was crowned the Olympic champion.

Kearney after winning gold in Vancouver
Kearney after winning gold in VancouverBela Szandelszky/Associated Press

Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. She became the World Cup champion in early 2012, but in October of that year, she crashed during a training run in Switzerland. At first, it didn’t seem too serious. But after being airlifted off of the hill and into a hospital, it turned out that Kearney had a lacerated liver, two broken ribs and a punctured lung. She had to spend 10 days in the hospital in Switzerland before even flying back home. The bleeding liver kept her off of the slopes and out of competition for the next two months. 

While that would have been enough to jar an average competitor, Kearney didn’t miss a beat. She used her months off to get even stronger and returned to competition the next January. She successfully defended her World Cup crown despite missing the first two competitions of the season, and then she won the World Championships for the first time since 2005.

The morning before the final in Vancouver in 2010, U.S. Ski Team strength coach Alex Moore handed her a note that included tallies of all the jumps, bike rides, squats, dead lifts and pull-ups she had done over the past few years. The impressive tally gave Kearney the peace of mind she needed headed heading into the biggest ski of her life.

This week, she received another note from her coach. Inside was a summary of all the work she has put in since winning gold in Vancouver. Nick Zaccardi of NBC OlympicTalk reports that the tallies in this letter were significantly higher than the tallies from four years ago. Kearney is ready.

All eyes will be on the laid-back but fiercely competitive Kearney in the final on Saturday. Her biggest competitors will be a powerhouse family from Canada: the DuFour-Lapointe sisters. Justine and Chloe finished second and third in the qualification round, while the eldest, Maxime, finished eighth. American Eliza Outtrim qualified in fourth place. There is a lot of talent to go around.

Make no mistake about it—this is Kearney’s event to lose. Finally comfortable as the favorite, this is her chance to cement her legacy as one of the freestyle skiing greats.