Kearney battles demons to win gold

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Hannah Kearney is a homebody who dreams of tending a vegetable garden behind a white farmhouse at the end of a dirt road. Yet she has circumnavigated the globe several times and mastered living out of a suitcase.

Kearney doesn't like crowds and fiercely values her privacy, yet performs in front of thousands of people. She is driven and curious about the world and yearns to go to college, yet often finds herself hemmed in by the four prosaic walls of a hotel room or a gym. She talks fast, but is a devotee of the Slow Food movement.

Most of all, Kearney loves to take the hard way downhill, carving a precise, sinuous path through a minefield of moguls that would send most people sprawling in the first instant. She never much liked the idea of going airborne and upside down on skis, so, of course, she has devoted much of her young life to a sport that requires performing two acrobatic feats within 30 seconds.

"It's absolutely worthwhile," Kearney said in her low voice, which was even throatier than usual with emotion. "It's that much more satisfying because it was something I was reluctant to do, and I had to put a lot of effort into making flipping feel natural to me. To overcome any sort of fear is satisfying, and to overcome it well is even better."

Kearney, 23, of Norwich, Vt., completed an intensely gratifying worst-to-first journey with a final leg that took just 27.86 seconds, becoming the U.S. team's first champion of the 2010 Winter Games, four years after she had found the favorite's burden too much to bear and failed to get out of qualifying in Torino.

In so doing, Kearney spoiled what had been a widely anticipated party for the host country, which had high hopes that defending gold medalist Jennifer Heil could repeat and become the first Canadian to stand on the top step of the podium in a home Games. Heil took the silver and Kearney's U.S. teammate Shannon Bahrke won the bronze eight years after taking silver in Salt Lake City.

Much of the competition at Cypress Mountain was conducted in a downpour, with gusty winds that made it superfluous for the partisan crowd to wave their flags -- all they had to do was hold them up.

"It's the first time I've ever been on a chairlift with an umbrella," said the irrepressible Bahrke, who said she will retire at the end of this season.

But the skiers said the conditions didn't bother them, and in a cosmic sense the weather was somewhat fitting. The venue's viability has been threatened by warm temperatures and rain for weeks now. Vancouver organizers said this week that keeping the course in competition shape required spreading 115,000 pounds of straw and trucking or flying in 9,000 cubic meters of snow.

Heil, pale but composed, offered no excuses. "I definitely feel like I had a few gaps," she said. "There's no doubt about it, I was going for gold.

"Canadians can be assured that the gold medal is coming on home soil. We have such a strong team, we've never been so well-prepared. I'm just so proud to be Canadian in this incredible moment for sport in Canada."

On the other hand, the home country does have somewhat of a claim on Kearney: Her mother is a Montreal native and she has family in Quebec and Vancouver.

On Saturday, Kearney was able to joke about the disappointment of 2006. "If I had known I was going to win, I wouldn't have cried that hard," she said. But in truth, she was devastated and didn't recover for several months. Then, just when she was getting back on track, she blew out her knee and had to take a year off from racing.

Kearney retreated to her beloved home and grew up. The negative feelings she had about Torino faded in place of a new passion and discipline. "Before, I trained by being a high school student, and it turns out that's not the best way to win a gold medal," she told reporters late last year.

To remind Kearney of the woman-hours she'd invested to prepare for this season, U.S. team trainer Alex Moore wrote her a message in a card that featured a lightning bolt on the front. Among the stats inside: 1,000 water-ramp jumps last summer in Lake Placid and 14,000 jumps of all kinds, counting the dry-land workouts in which she jumped rope and jumped onto a box from a standstill.

But the post-traumatic stress of Torino never really got erased from Kearney's hard drive, even after she won the overall World Cup title last season and became the first skier to clinch a spot on the Olympic moguls team by winning the U.S. trials in December. Last month, during a World Cup weekend in Utah, her expressive eyes filled with tears as she talked about what she called a midseason slump that felt scarily familiar to what had happened four years ago.

"As the Olympics get closer, it opens wounds," Kearney told me that day. "Had I been skiing well these last couple weeks, it would not be an issue. As soon as you have a bad result, it starts planting these seeds of doubt. But I've learned I have control over how I react to that, and I'm a better skier than I was four years ago. I certainly compete better."

The first thing Kearney did to take control here was to march in Friday's opening ceremonies, an opportunity that she declined in 2006 due to nerves and the sense she might be sabotaging her chances. This time around, she was determined to maximize the experience.

Her second act was to lay down the best run of qualifying and exorcise that demon. A couple of hours later, as Kearney waited her turn to ski last in the starting order, she heard the huge ovation for Heil and knew she would have to ski the run of her life.

Kearney puffed out her cheeks at the top of the hill, frowned slightly with concentration and sliced her way down to the first jump. Her first trick, a back layout, sent her into the air and upside down -- a skydive of faith she did with confidence born of a thousand repetitions. Then she settled into what she loves best, the middle part of the course, flying down the obstacle course, perfectly balanced, the trademark pigtails sticking out of her helmet and bouncing along like twin metronomes.

She nailed her 360 spin on the second jump, crossed the finish line and waited for the result. When it came, Kearney looked at first astonished, then suffused with joy, then somehow knowing.

"I don't recall ever desiring to go as fast as possible," Kearney told me last month in Utah. "Even now, I'm not a very fast skier when I'm skiing on the flat parts of the mountain." This medal run took a little longer than Kearney might have expected, but she got there by embracing the contradictions.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.