The Sochi Network

50 to watch: Kearney in groove to defend moguls title

In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Reuters is highlighting the athletes to watch during the Games.

+++

Success in snow sports invariably boils down to rhythm and momentum and right now American moguls skier Hannah Kearney has both in abundance as she eyes the defence of her Olympic title in Sochi.

Those two ingredients are especially paramount in her discipline and Kearney is right in the groove, dominating the World Cup circuit having won the world championships last year.

The 27-year-old from the small town of Norwich in Vermont, a fertile spawning ground for Olympians, will arrive in Russia as the overwhelming favourite to win a second gold, four years after zig-zagging down the course in Vancouver.

"I didn't suffer from any lack of motivation the last four years. Just keep going, I guess. Keep rolling with it," Kearney, one of 11 Olympians to be raised in the quaint town of 4,000 inhabitants, said after back-to-back victories in Deer Valley that cemented her place on top of the World Cup standings.

A self-confessed workaholic in the gym, Kearney refused to rest on her laurels since winning in Vancouver, easy she says when she has the "best full-time job in the world."

"Over the years, I have learned to love the training," she said of the hours spent strengthening her legs.

"Training for mogul skiing is never boring because you are training acrobatics on the trampoline and water ramps, plus you lift weights, do a lot of core, stretch, do yoga and bike, hike and run. It's truly a full-time job."

Her first five World Cup races of the season brought three first places, one second and a third, domination that makes her a huge favourite for moguls gold in Sochi.

In an event where precision and flair are needed in equal measure, however, Kearney is not thinking too far ahead.

"I feel like I'm better now that I was in Vancouver. I don't really have new tricks or jumps but I've been training the same turns for four years and the results prove I'm as strong as ever," she said.

"But in mogul skiing, there are so many components to a good run, like your jumps, time, turns, weather, snow conditions, and equipment, that there is always a chance something can go wrong so nobody is unbeatable.

"However, a string of successful results breeds confidence that you are skiing well and the judges like your style.

"The training for the Olympics happens over your whole career and not just in the days and weeks before. I have confidence in my preparation and my ability, so I am ready."

When Kearney takes to the snow in Sochi it will be a matter of particular pride for the residents of Norwich, who have become used to waving off Olympic hopefuls down the years, and waving them back in.

When Kearney won in Vancouver she returned to Norwich and was driven through town in a motorcade in a red convertible Volkswagen, with police escort in tow.

"The town's support was very apparent in the turn out, the decorations, gifts and speeches. It would be very difficult to top that experience," she says.

But what is it about Norwich, a town that has produced two-times Olympic ski jumper Mike Holland, who briefly held the world distance record, and his brothers Jim (also an Olympic jumper) and Joe (twice an Olympian in Nordic combined), snowboarder Kevin Pearce who was denied his place in Vancouver after suffering a serious head injury and Andrew Wheating who ran for the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics.

"I've thought about it," Kearney said. "Locally there is a Nordic ski jump and the High School has its own ski jumping team. Also it's a very small community and people just enjoy their recreation. One family gets into it, then another and then another so it becomes a community activity."

Kearney was never tempted to jump off a ski ramp but she quickly strayed off the main piste on family ski trips, heading off in search of moguls.

"I love the entire package but I was drawn to them. It was like a fun obstacle course."

What was not quite so natural were the aerial excursions that earn vital "style points" in competition.

"In recent years I put most energy into my jumps," she says. "There's only one way to feel comfortable going upside down on skis and that is to do it as often as you can."

So how will the locals celebrate another Kearney gold?

"There are only two bars in town. The Norwich Inn brews their own beer called Jasper Murdock and my photo is up in the alehouse, so I would like to think they will be watching."

She might just go for a dip in the Black Sea.

"The last time I was there it was so warm I just wore a tank top and went swimming," she said.