Hannah Kearney performed the last of more than 6,000 career jumps off a water ramp over seven years of training in Lake Placid, N.Y., two weeks ago. She threw her ski poles away. Then she felt it.
“The idea that I was getting choked up over something that I wasn’t really going to miss is like, uh-oh, I’m going to be a wreck in March,” Kearney said while getting her hair done in Midtown Manhattan last week.
Kearney, the most decorated U.S. freestyle skier ever, will retire after the 2014-15 season. The 2010 Olympic moguls champion decided before the Sochi Olympics that they would be her final Winter Games. She contemplated not coming back even for post-Olympic competition after a heartbreaking experience in the Russian mountains.
Kearney attempted to become the first freestyle skier to win back-to-back golds last February. She was a heavy favorite. She took bronze instead and shed tears sharing a podium with Canadian sisters Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe.
“No one in life wants the best part of their career to be behind them,” Kearney told reporters on the first night of medal competition at the Sochi Olympics. “Unfortunately, that’s what it feels like right now, that I was at my best in the past.”
Kearney, 28, isn’t changing her primary goal going into her 13th and final season, starting in Finland on Dec. 13. Win the overall World Cup title for a sixth time, which would break a tie for the record with Canadian Jenn Heil and American Donna Weinbrecht.
She publicly declared her retirement plans to hold herself accountable. Nagging knee pain in training last month felt like a reminder that she may have made the wrong decision in continuing one more season. Kearney had a left knee arthroscopy following a torn meniscus in July.
“I know in my heart that I need to move on,” said Kearney, who completed her freshman slate at Dartmouth in three years between Vancouver and Sochi, chopped up by competition. “In order to accomplish anything else in my life, I’ve got to start doing it now.”
Kearney, who started moguls skiing before women were allowed to do back flips in competition, will miss plenty about traveling the world to compete. The smell of her favorite bakery in Are, Sweden. The view of the Matterhorn from her Swiss hotel. But not the 2 a.m. alarms to drive from Norwich, Vt., to the Manchester, N.H., airport.
She still thinks about that Sochi Olympic bronze daily.
“I can get choked up talking about it, but I will get over it,” Kearney said. “I know everything happens for a reason. I’m just not sure why.”