In 2005, the New England moguls skier was World Champion on top of the world. Just a year after her first World Cup win, the pig-tailed Kearney scored somewhat of an upset in Ruka, Finland to take gold. More importantly, though, it set her up for the big show in Sauze d'Oulx 12 months later as the Olympic Winter Games came to Torino.
Despite having only two World Cup wins, many considered her a contender to repeat her world title on opening day in Torino. When asked by USA Today a week before the Games if she was the favorite, Kearney didn't quite go there but said she was one of a handful who had a chance at gold. She also pointed squarely at two-time World Cup champ Jenn Heil of Canada.
But, it wasn't to be in Torino!
In fact, Hannah Kearney never got her chance to ski for a medal. Competing in her first Olympic run, Kearney didn't make it out of qualifiers skiing shaky from the start and winding up 22nd, two spots away from a berth in the medals round.
"I felt embarrassed, defeated and uncertain of my future," said Kearney recently. "But once I realized that the world doesn't stop when things don't go as you planned, I continued on with my ski career and my former level of happiness returned."
That happiness was tested again when a knee injury took her out for a year. Her coaches and strength trainers kept her going. She persevered sights set on the opening night showdown at Cypress Mountain outside Vancouver where she knew it would be Jenn Heil again. But this time, the Canadian would be carrying the hopes of millions of Canadians all anxious to kickoff their Olympics with gold.
In the 1,463 days from Sauze d'Oulx to Cypress, Kearney never lost her focus. Every day, she thought of that loss in 2006. Every day she worked harder. She kept meticulous training notes and every day she talked to her trainers. She left no stone unturned in her quest to become an Olympic champion.
"It seems as if there is a theme amongst the stories of successful athletes in that they find motivation in the setbacks. It could be called stubbornness or even insanity, but it is usually called perseverance when it is followed by success."
For all her work, for all her mental anguish, she still wasn't sure. Her U.S. Ski Team trainer, Alex Moore, knew she was ready. On the day of qualifying, he gave her a little card. On it was a lightning bolt and a few key notes: "Hannah, since May, 14,000 jumps, 126 hours of A-1 jogs or bikes, 450-plus training sessions, 140 recovery hot-cold baths, 1,000 jumps on the water ramps, 224 visual-coaching-program diary entries, 21 hours at lactate threshold, 190 sets of Supermans (stretching exercise), 1,400 reps of squats, 1,500 Romanian deadlifts or glutes/hams and 470 pull-ups."
It was pouring rain that night in Cypress, the kind of nasty, sideways rain that makes it even worse. "I like the rain," said Kearney not atypical of great athletes who are inspired by the worst conditions.
Kearney was also inspired by one of her heroes 1992 Olympic gold-medalist Donna Weinbrecht, who had won 18 years earlier to the day. "Embrace it," Weinbrecht told Kearney before her gold medal run. She did.
Despite the partisan Canadian crowd rooting for hometown hero Jenn Heil, it was Hannah Kearney's night. Her dominant qualifying run set the stage and she wiped the slate clean from Torino. She heard the crowd after Heil put down an amazing finals run. Then it was her turn. Kearney was nearly flawless, winning every scoring category and taking nearly a full-point victory.
Hannah shared a lot of smiles that evening along with bronze teammate Shannon Bahrke. The smiles washed away the tears from four years earlier.
"I really want to be part of an Olympic montage," Kearney told ESPN Olympic writer Bonnie Ford. "And I think I've earned my right now."