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Quaint, tiny Norwich, Vt., has put more than its share of athletes in the Olympics, but none more successful than Hannah Kearney. She won gold at the Vancouver Games, bronze at Sochi, and at times was unbeatable on the World Cup circuit. She won her first World Cup event in 2004 at the age of 17, then went on to collect eight World Cup season titles, including three overall freestyle globes. In 2011-12 she put together a record-setting streak of 16 straight wins. Now, on the eve of her 29th birthday, she’s said this will be her final year—and admits now that making that statement early in the season may have been one of the few bobbles in an otherwise flawless bumps career.
We hear you don’t like talking about it, but you’re retiring at the end of this year?
That’s the plan. I alluded to it early in the season and then it started to get blown out of proportion, so I’ve kind of toned it down. I didn’t want the season to turn into a big farewell tour. I’m here to ski, not to say goodbye. But yes, it seems very likely that my last competition will be in March. Retirement is just not what I want to be focused on. And lot of athletes find it hard to leave their sport behind, like Brett Favre. If you still feel good about your chances it’s nice to know you can continue competing if you want, but it is very likely that I will retire in the spring.
Aren’t you still at or near the top of your game?
Every time I think I’ve peaked, I look at video and find there are still little things I can improve on. But as you get older, your body feels it. Not so much pain, but more the mental aspect, the confidence. You want to give it everything you’ve got, but pain is something you have to consider. I had a procedure on my knee over the summer, and it hasn’t been quite the same since then. It’s structurally sound, but it’s uncomfortable. That’s not an excuse, but it’s changed the way I train.
So winning gold medals—it doesn’t set you up for life?
Not really. Almost no American could name the last person to win a gold medal in moguls. Within the sport, you’re all set—you’ll get sponsorship deals and be supported. But it doesn’t set you up for life. And anyway, you don’t want to rest on your laurels. Maybe in the business world it’ll help you get a foot in the door, but ultimately it’s all about how you perform at your next task.
Your hometown has had more than it’s share of Olympians, hasn’t it?
My mother says it’s the water. But it’s a wealthy community, and that’s a good start. There’s lots of support and a system in place that allows kids to think they can do anything. And once you send one athlete off to the Olympics, the others see that it’s not impossible or unordinary.
Why bumps and not racing?
I was just drawn to the moguls from the start. I liked skiing fast and the jumps, and I was always skiing the bumps on the sides of the trails. I also did a lot of gymnastics when I was young, so that was a good fit. I was pretty coordinated. A lot of what we did back then was still ballet.
Looking back: Career highlights? Low points?
The low point was probably the Torino Olympics, because my expectations were so high. I got embarrassed and felt like I let everyone down. I started to have moments where I wondered if I should have gone to school, and I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision. The best was probably Vancouver, just doing what I’d set my mind to at a moment when it counted on such a huge stage, with all my family there.
While we’ve got you, how about a bump lesson from a Olympic gold medalist?
I’m not a very good coach. When you’re so deeply involved in something it’s hard to step outside of it. But a good general tip is keeping your hands up in front of you and try not to move them around a lot. That should help you stay square to the fall line and keep your upper body quiet. It’s also good to think about upper and lower body separation. Let the legs do all the work, keep the rest of the body quiet, and try to go as straight down the hill as possible.
What makes a good bump ski?
Straight and skinny—it’s almost a retro ski. Too much shape will over-turn, and you need to be really quick in the moguls. It’s not as soft as a consumer ski, but not as stiff as a race ski. I’m 5-foot-6 and I ski on a 170, which might be a little longer than you’d expect, and I’ve been with Volkl for 16 years.
Tell us how to ski your home hill, Waterville Valley.
The Sunnyside chair is the best. It’s a slow triple, but it gives you access to my two favorite trails, True Grit and Lower Bobby’s. They’re just the steepest trails, plus True Grit was the site of my first ever moguls comp. It’s just a fun trail.
Was fellow Vermonter Donna Weinbrecht an inspiration?
Yes. I was young, but she was it—the mogul queen. Still is. I’ve spoken to her several times, and she was in Vancouver and has always been very supportive. She wasn’t exactly a mentor, but she has a really kind heart and is a sweet person so it’s just easy to like her.
Is U.S. mogul skiing suffering hard times at the moment?
I think that’s true. The team overall probably had more people in the top 10, 10 years ago. Now we’re in kind of a transition period. We’ve hired an aerials coach and that will help, and a new head coach, and we have talent. But it might take time. Someone could come up from Nor-Am level and do well at any time, so we have depth. But right now the Canadians have something going on that’s hard to beat.
So do snowboarders ruin the bumps?
No, I don’t think so. If anything they’re usually skimming across the tops and pushing snow into the ruts. I’m for anybody skiing bumps. It’s good exercise, and it’s a part of skiing that I hope never dies.
(Photos from top: Kirk Paulsen, Garth Hagar/U.S. Ski Team, Julien Heon)