Hannah Kearney returns to championship form

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Hannah Kearney returned to competition just three and a half months after lacerating her liver, breaking two ribs and puncturing her lung during a training fall.

Not a hint of nervousness could be found on Hannah Kearney's face as she awaited the announcer's call to commence her final run at the world championships March 6 in Voss, Norway.

Why would she be uneasy? She was the top qualifier, the current leader of the season's World Cup standings, defending World Cup champion and reigning Olympic gold medalist. She had been the world's best women's moguls skier for the past three years.

Yet, Kearney hadn't been crowned at the biannual event since 2005. She made the 2013 worlds her primary focus for the entire season. And it all came down to this run.

She nailed her back layout (a back flip with legs straight and arms extended overhead) off the top jump and carved flawlessly through the middle section of bumps. She beautifully executed her helicopter-mute grab (crossing the skis to form an "X" while grabbing the right ski with her left hand and spinning 360 degrees) off the bottom kicker and crossed the line in 25.58 seconds, the fastest of the final round.

There was zero suspense as judges tallied the scores -- the gold medal was Kearney's.

"I haven't been that happy in a long time," Kearney recalled Sunday from her hotel in Are, Sweden, where two of the mogul season's final three World Cup events will take place Friday and Saturday. "I very much wanted [the world title], and anytime you want something a lot, it means a lot when you achieve that goal."

Now it's on to the target that defines each of Kearney's seasons: the overall World Cup moguls title. She leads Canada's Justine Dufour-Lapointe by just three points.

It's a slight miracle Kearney is even in contention.

An unexpected turn

Kearney, 27, remembers a clear, blue-sky day on Oct. 5, 2012, in Zermatt, Switzerland, where she had been training all week with her U.S. teammates. She wasn't working on anything new that afternoon, just fine-tuning the tricks that helped her win a record 16 straight World Cup contests over parts of 2011 and 2012. On her third or fourth run, she performed a back layout, "of which I have done literally thousands in my life," she said.

"That was probably her best back layout of the day," said Garth Hager, her primary U.S. Ski Team coach.

Upon landing, however, Kearney's legs stayed too stiff, forcing her weight forward. She picked up a leg behind her to regain balance, but to no avail. The torso of Kearney's body slammed fiercely into a mogul.

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Hannah Kearney has been focused on the world championships all season and earned her victory there with the competition's fastest final run.

She was stunned -- crashing after trying one of her sport's most routine moves -- and initially thought she just knocked the air out of her lungs. Then she tried to sit up and felt as if she might vomit.

Hager arrived by her side and immediately noticed Kearney's pale face, so he waved down Douglas Flint, the team's physical therapist. Flint sensed she had internal injuries, so he told her the ski patrol needed to take her down in a sled. But considering they were actually on a glacier that can only be accessed by cable car, the only way out for a person in Kearney's condition was via helicopter.

"That was terrifying," Kearney said. "Half of me was just terrified of the heights, which you can't really see, but I could feel the sensation of hanging off a helicopter. And then, half of me was just worried that it's an embarrassment. I'm like, 'Oh my god, there's going to be nothing wrong with me and this is all just pathetic. Everyone's going to [say], Oh, Hannah got airlifted off and then she's totally fine.' Because I didn't feel that bad at that point. I remember thinking, 'Oh, I'm probably not going to be able to ski tomorrow.' Turns out that was an understatement."

CT scans later revealed a lacerated liver, two broken ribs and a punctured lung. The bruised liver kept Kearney in the intensive care unit overnight and on bed rest at the hospital for four more days. She yearned for American doctors she could understand, but the collapsed lung prevented her from flying.

Kearney finally returned home after about 10 days. She could exercise, but needed to avoid impact, so no jumping or running. Still, she remained hopeful of being cleared to compete at the World Cup opener Dec. 15 in Ruka, Finland. That wish was crushed when, six weeks after the accident, another CT scan showed her liver was still bleeding.

Dejected to begin with, Kearney eventually saw the positive in being home at that time of year: Thanksgiving with her family in Norwich, Vt., time to watch her brother, Denny, play minor league hockey in Louisiana and Christmas decorations in her house for the first time.

Yet she feared losing ground to her ski rivals, so she quickly convinced herself to the contrary.

"I was lifting weights and my training wasn't limited in the gym," Kearney said. "So I reminded myself each day that I was probably getting a lot stronger than my competitors, who were just maintaining [fitness] and just trying to ski at that point."

The road back

The mandatory time off may have made Kearney a better skier, but it also reminded the 10-year World Cup veteran how much she loves the sport.

Kearney strapped back into skis in mid-December, was cleared for full moguls training Jan. 1 and later won her season debut Jan. 17 in Lake Placid, N.Y. She placed fifth a week later in Calgary, but then took three events in a row, the last of which came in Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Olympics, where all signs point to Kearney as the favorite to defend her title.

She admits being "a tiny bit" surprised at winning so quickly upon returning to the World Cup circuit, but Hager wasn't.

"Not at all because she's quite a competitor," he said. "To settle for second isn't in her book, really. It's not how she's programmed."

As a result, Kearney is the front-runner for the overall moguls title with three competitions left, despite missing the first two events of the season. And she believes winning the world title last week was a turning point.

"It was the first competition of the season where I felt as if my skiing had maybe surpassed the level I left off last year," she said.

That shouldn't come as a shock for Kearney, who said her relentless drive to get better keeps her focused.

"I just feel like I can be better at the sport," she said. "So I don't want to stop until I feel like I can't get any better."

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