Kearney's quest may not end in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia -- In the bleak hours between 1 and 4 in the morning Sunday, 5,000 miles from home, unable to keep herself from scrolling through screen after screen of emails and stories and social media feedback, Hannah Kearney knew she was in no shape to make any drastic career decisions.

Yet her restless mind churned on, as any elite athlete's would when visions of a triumphant exit give way to the reality of being ushered out the side door. She has to make peace with that, but it could take a while to get through that snowy mountain pass.

Less than 24 hours after falling just short of repeating as Olympic moguls champion, Kearney's voice was still thick with regret. The Vermont native has a World Cup season to finish and most likely will compete another year on the circuit she has dominated since winning the Olympic moguls event in Vancouver. She came to Sochi convinced this would be her last Winter Games. Sleepless in her room in the Olympic village, replaying the brief loss of traction in the final run that cost her a second gold, her resolve wobbled at times.

It is Kearney's painful and beautiful habit to rip Band-Aids off her emotions rather than slowly peeling them away, and that is what she did when she spoke to reporters Sunday afternoon.

"I've gotta just stick with 'no,'" Kearney said to the prospect that she might mount one last Olympic campaign. "But last night, I think from the podium, I yelled to my brother, 'Four more years.'

"It's a hard decision to make when you've just let yourself down, but four years is a long time to wait to let yourself down again. I don't have any interest in doing that."

It's hard to imagine an athlete more brutally self-critical than Kearney, who referred to her bronze medal as a "downgrade" even as she conceded it might seem shinier with the passage of time.

That relentlessness is the chief reason she made three Olympic teams. As a younger skier, Kearney didn't particularly relish speed and nursed anxiety about going airborne, yet she chose a discipline that pushed her into both of those discomfort zones.

The technical compulsion required to navigate the bumps was what Kearney truly reveled in, first and to this day. Even after she slipped and went up on one ski coming around the first turn after landing her initial jump Saturday, she pulled herself back into control and skied fluidly through the middle of the course, her core almost motionless, knees bobbing in perfect unison.

"I guess I could be proud of myself because I did go for it," Kearney said. "I didn't lose the Olympics because I skied a conservative run or held back. I added a small new element of difficulty to my run compared to four years ago, which I guess is a little victory."

Kearney said this juncture is especially trying because she's in the best condition of her life. Athletes at her level need the confidence -- even when it borders on delusion, she said -- that they have prime years ahead.

"I've said I won't retire until I feel I can't improve, and I know I can certainly improve on that run," she said. "I've been less consistent this year, and I don't know the reason for that. Hopefully it's because I am still improving and when you're pushing yourself there are things that won't go your way. I have to find this new level where I can be consistent again at a faster speed, doing more difficult tracks. Or I can retire. Those are my two options."

Kearney, who turns 28 later this month, is still chipping away at her freshman year requirements at Dartmouth and intends to re-enroll in classes the same week the World Cup season ends. Given her gift for detail, it was not surprising to learn that she has stashed most of her winnings in retirement accounts.

She hopes that completing her education will lead her to her "next passion," which often poses a bigger challenge for an Olympian than any competition.

"I have this dream of what I ultimately want my life to be like, and it involves a lot of quaint activities like cooking and canoeing and camping and hiking," she said. "None of those seem very profitable, so I don't have a plan for how I'm going to support myself before I get to that point. The very simplest things in life make me the happiest.

"But I'm not quite ready to transition to that mode completely. ... I should probably try to get a few nights of sleep before I decide whether my athletic career is over."

Kearney likely has a few more miles to go before she sleeps. After 12 years of some failure, considerable success and continual humility, she has earned the right to be as indecisive as she wants. She'll scan the hill in front of her, reading the topography and the conditions.

Chances are she'll pick a great line.