U.S. skier Hannah Kearney fails to defend title, settles for bronze

Turns out there is snow at the Sochi Winter Olympics, after all. And a picturesque alpine village, too, albeit 80 percent vacant because storefronts are just being completed. Spectators watching on TV probably already know this, but fans and media isolated around the venues along the Black Sea coastline have to drive 50 miles outside Sochi to find the dramatic peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and people in snow boots.

Up here, 3,937 feet above the resort town’s pebbled beaches, sits the Rosa Khutur Extreme Park. This is where you find the skiers who like to take the hard way down. As if it isn’t challenging enough to race down an Olympic-level ski course on the ground with your skis pointed downward, moguls skiers choose to ski down a steep 28 degree slope covered in snow bumps, and then, just for kicks, launch off air bumps and perform two acrobatic jumps.

The names of the jumps alone are clues of their difficulty: the backscratcher, daffy, helicopter, iron cross, kosak, mule kick, and twister. Watching the skiers’ knees, bouncing up and down and swiveling side to side as they carve through the course, it’s a wonder they don’t head to the orthopedic surgeon after every run.

Saturday night, under the lights, all eyes were on 27-year-old American Hannah Kearney. The defending Olympic champion from Norwich, Vt., is one of the most dominant freestyle skiers of all time and was the top qualifier Thursday, earning an automatic berth in the championship.

Kearney broke Canadian hearts in Vancouver on the first day of the 2010 Games, upsetting hometown favorite Jennifer Heil. On Saturday, a pair of Canadian sisters broke Kearney’s heart. Justine Dufour-Lapointe, 19, and her older sister, Chloe, 22, won gold and silver medals, respectively, leaving a devastated Kearney to settle for bronze.

The Dufour-Lapointe’s eldest sister, Maxime, 24, also competed in the event. It was the fifth time in Olympic history that three siblings competed in the same Winter Olympics, and just the third time in an individual event. In 1960, Therese, Anne-Marie and Margeurite LeDuc competed for the French alpine team. In 1976, Argentine brothers Marcos, Martin and Matias Jerman skied cross country. In 1980, Anton, Peter, and Marian Stasny played for the Czech hockey team, and in 1988, the Mexican bobsled team consisted of four brothers, Jorge, Jose, Luis and Roberto Tames.

“It just totally rocks!’’ said Justine Dufour-Lapointe. “It’s just really amazing. I gave everything I had inside. I haven’t eaten since 12 in the morning. I felt the pressure, but I tried to just put that away and I said, `You know what? I’m going to roar and people will see me and remember who the real Justine is.’’

The two sisters held hands on the medal podium.

Kearney lost balance on her final run and scored 21.49. Justine won with a score of 22.44. Chloe scored 21.66. Skiers are judged on their jumps and technical quality of their turns, and they earn points for their time.

Kearney, a no-nonsense Dartmouth student who likes to knit and tend garden, didn’t hide her disappointment during her press conference. She broke down twice, and buried her head – with her trademark braids sticking up from her goggle straps – into her hands.

“I feel like I let myself down,’’ she said. “I wanted that gold medal, and I skied for it, but I made a huge mistake, and you don’t win the Olympics when you make a huge mistake in your run. I am proud to contribute to the medal count for the United States, but right now it feels very disappointing.’’

Kearney skied last, and it wasn’t until her score was posted that she knew she had blown the gold.

“So much adrenaline, I didn’t realize mistake was that bad,’’ she said. “I felt like I got off balance, but I’m strong so I pulled it back together with all my might and I hopefully showed some mental strength by cleaning up the rest of my run. I’ll have to treat this bronze medal as [breaking down in tears] a reward for fighting and not perfection.’’

She composed herself, and continued.

“Right now I’d like very much to ski again. Instead, I will try my absolute best to let it go. That will help my happiness level going forward. You can’t live in the past and this moment is now already over, so I have to look forward to the next thing. Unfortunately, all my training and focus has been on this moment and now that it’s over you have to reevaluate, come up with new goals. It’s tough when you know your Olympic career is over and it did not go as you were imagining.’’

Then, she got philosophical.

“Life does not always go according to plan. There’s usually a reason, and you learn from it. Despite my outpouring of emotion right now – sorry, I’m a girl and I worked really hard these last four years so, whew, this is hard – I’ll start planning the next chapter of my life.’’