The 2010 Olympic moguls champion Hannah Kearney will try to tie a U.S. legend’s record for career World Cup victories Sunday, in what many say will be the final international competition of Kearney’s career.
But not Kearney. It will probably be her final World Cup, but she’s keeping her options open.
“I’ve learned that it’s hard to make announcements in a sport you love,” Kearney said in a phone interview this week, before leaving Vermont for Megeve in the French Alps. “Then it gets here, and you start panicking, and you have Brett Favre moments. That’s the reason I’m hesitant.”
Kearney, 29, is arguably the greatest moguls skier of all time and definitely in any Mount Rushmore discussion. Last year, she said that this season would be her last.
She owns Olympic gold from Vancouver and bronze from Sochi, eight World Championships medals (including three golds) and 45 World Cup victories.
Only one moguls skier — man or woman — owns more than 45 World Cup wins. That’s the first Olympic moguls champion from 1992, New Jersey’s Donna Weinbrecht. Weinbrecht had 46 wins.
Kearney, who once won 16 straight World Cup moguls or dual moguls events, could cap her career by matching Weinbrecht’s record in Megeve on Sunday. She’s the favorite, having already clinched her fifth straight World Cup season title.
“Tying Donna would be the perfect compromise because who wants to beat Donna Weinbrecht?” Kearney said. “It’s not even fair. I had more World Cup starts than her.”
Kearney, whose World Cup debut came in 2003, will compete for the 117th time on Sunday. Weinbrecht had 112 starts from 1988 through 2002.
Their paths have crossed at the 2010 Olympics, when Weinbrecht reported on Kearney for Yahoo! Sports, at Killington, Vt., youth ski clinics, and, for the first time, at a 2002 U.S. Ski Team camp at Lake Powell, Utah.
“I remember her sitting there with her school books,” Weinbrecht says now.
Weinbrecht was 37 years old. Kearney was 16 and attending her very first U.S. team camp. Kearney studied English while other of-age team members celebrated the end of the season on a houseboat. It marked Weinbrecht’s final season.
“[Weinbrecht] was walking around with her large envelope of MRIs,” Kearney said. “I remember saying, ‘Oh, gosh.’ When you’re 16, you’re not thinking about MRIs. I’ve had a handful now, and I get it.”
Kearney’s ensuing decorated career included painful bumps, from tearfully washing out in qualifying as a medal favorite at Torino 2006 to many injuries.
They included a torn ACL, concussion, two broken ribs, lacerated liver, a punctured lung and, in July, a left knee arthroscopy following a torn meniscus that made her question coming back at all after Sochi.
“I need to move on,” Kearney said last fall. “In order to accomplish anything else in my life, I’ve got to start doing it now.”
Kearney plans to race at the U.S. Championships later in March, rest in April and take classes at Utah’s Westminster College starting in May.
“The last time I went to school, it certainly makes you want to continue to be an athlete,” Kearney said this week. “It turns out that homework and studying isn’t nearly as fun as training and competing.”
If Kearney wins Sunday and never competes internationally again, she will follow a similar exit as the biggest rival during her career, Canadian Jenn Heil.
Heil won the 2006 Olympic title but was unable to repeat in Vancouver in 2010, when home fans hoped she would become the first Canadian Olympic gold medalist ever on home soil.
But Heil upset Kearney at the 2011 World Championships, in the Canadian’s final season.
Kearney, after settling for bronze at the 2014 Olympics, said she saw Heil in the Sochi airport.
“I get it, that’s not as fun as winning,” Kearney recalled telling Heil.
Heil gave her a knowing look.
Weinbrecht quit after the Nagano 1998 Winter Games but, urged by 1994 Olympic silver medalist Liz McIntyre, came back in her mid-30s to make a run for the 2002 Olympics. She missed that team but didn’t regret it.
“I know if I sat on the couch, the competitor that I am, I would’ve, could’ve wondered,” Weinbrecht said.
Kearney has a similar disposition.
“It’s all for the competition,” she said. “That’s what I’ve lived for.”
So she’s concerned about how she will replace moguls.
“I’ll have to join a CrossFit league,” Kearney joked.