Olympics / Sports

Hours after disappointing bronze, Kearney reflects on what's next

SOCHI, Russia -- You see an Olympic career dawn with the brightness Sage Kostenburg displayed on Saturday and you forget how dark the dusk can be.

Hannah Kearney knows now.

For the veteran freestyle skier, it ended with tears and sleeplessness, with consoling phone calls and ugly Internet messages, with disappointment, frustration and, finally, hope for a future she can't quite imagine yet.

Kearney, favored to win a second straight freestyle-moguls gold medal, was upset in the Saturday night event by two young Canadians, concluding her third and last Winter Games with heartache and a bronze medal.

She wasn't unhappy with the bronze. She was upset with herself.

Knowing her last run had to be perfect for a repeat Olympic gold, she stumbled through a mistake-marred trip.

"I won gold four years ago," she said the day afterward. "Now I'm downgraded to a bronze and my career's over. It's not the ideal trajectory."

Thoughtful and eloquent, two attributes not often associated with extreme sports, Kearney, a mere 16 hours after her disappointment, reflected on her long night and uncertain future.

The midafternoon scene in a Main Press Center conference room had a sunrise-sunset flavor. Just 24 hours earlier, Kostenburg, the young snowboarder who won gold at these his first Games, had occupied the same room, the same chair.

Kearney, a Vermont resident who turns 28 later this month, said she couldn't commit to another three years of Olympic training.

"I've got to get on with my life," she said. "But that's a hard decision to make when you just let yourself down."

She'll remain in Sochi for four or five more days, return home to train for one last ski season, and go back to Dartmouth in the fall. By then, the sting should be gone and, she hopes, a new dream emerged.

Thinking more practically, Kearney knows she will need a paying job. A frugal New Englander, she's stowed away a hefty sum in a retirement account. But Dartmouth's financial-aid office told her she'll have to tap it to help pay for her Ivy League education.

"I have this dream of what I ultimately want my life to be like," she said. "It involves things like cooking and canoeing, camping and hiking. But none of those seem very profitable. I don't have a plan for how I'm going to support myself.

"But trying to make that decision at 4 a.m. last night was probably not a good idea. It's a hard decision to make when you've just let yourself down. I think I'll slowly transition. I'll continue to take classes at Dartmouth and hope that brings out my next passion."

She sounded more sanguine, more composed than after her disappointing valedictory performance. Time and seven hours of sleep helped, though at one point Sunday, when asked about leaving the sport that's been her life for more than a decade, she choked up again.

"I had a press conference immediately afterward and it was filled with a lot of tears," Kearney said. "It's just hard in that actual moment to have any sort of perspective. It's a letdown. You've been training for this so hard and so long that it's hard to believe it's over, regardless of the result."

Later that night, she went home and talked with friends and family who failed to console her. She couldn't sleep so she read awhile, then turned to her phone, which by then was humming with Google alerts, Tweets and e-mail messages.

"There was the good and there was the ugly," she explained. "It's hard not to pay some attention to that and, of course, I let myself get all caught up in it. But my family let me know they loved me no matter what."

Finally, sometime around 4 a.m., she shook off the worst of her anguish and slept.

By morning, Kearney was feeling better. She realized she had been confronted with one of those "Go Big-or-Go Home" moments extreme-sports athletes like to talk about. She went big.

"Athletes have emotions," she said. "We care and we train. But like life, things don't always go as we plan. The Go Big-or-Go Home thing is huge in our sport. I did go for it. I didn't lose the Olympics because I skied a conservative run or held back. And that's a comfort."

When this last Olympic task was done, Kearney thanked a group of sportswriters, rose from her podium chair, opened a side door and disappeared.

"I had seven runs in my whole (Olympic) career," she'd said earlier. "One at Torino, two at Vancouver and four here. I won four of them. Unfortunately they weren't all medal rounds.

"But you know what? Not many people get bronze medals with mistakes."

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