By David Fong
February 6, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — The flashback hit Hannah Kearney out of nowhere.
That’s when the defending gold medalist in women’s moguls decided she needed to turn her brain off and just do her thing.
The American’s quest for an Olympic repeat started flawlessly Thursday as she easily topped qualifying. The 27-year-old from New Hampshire posted a score of 23.05 to move into Saturday’s finals and move one step closer to bookending the gold she won in Vancouver four years ago.
Canadian Chloe Dufour-Lapointe finished second in qualifying, just ahead of younger sister Justine and older sister Maxime, who came in eighth. The trio declined interview requests to focus on the next step.
Kearney initially hoped to grab gold in Turin in 2006, when she was a 19-year-old world champion entering her prime. Instead she crashed during qualifying, tumbling over one of the early bumps in the course.
It nearly happened again during training earlier in the week, providing Kearney with a haunting reminder of Turin.
“I thought, ‘Oh, boy, we don’t need this problem again,’” Kearney said.
She needn’t have worried. Knees seemingly magnetized together as she navigated the moguls, Kearney posted the second-fastest time down the hill and highlighted it with a pair of well executed if not quite perfect jumps that allayed any concerns about the course’s safety.
“I think that everywhere we go, every World Cup venue, we show up and say, ‘Oh, my god. How are we going to make it down this course? This is impossible,’” Kearney said.
After some tweaking by officials, the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains looked no different than most other moguls events over the last four years, with the top-ranked Kearney looking down at the rest of the field.
“The course is great,” she said. “It’s challenging but in a very positive way. It’s going to separate the weak skiers from the strong skiers, hopefully.”
The top 10 skiers earned an automatic berth into the finals, with the remaining competitors returning for a second qualifying run on Saturday. The top 20 qualifiers make the finals, which will be held in three stages as the field is whittled down to 12 then six before a champion is crowned.
American Eliza Outtrim came in fourth, though teammates Heather McPhie and Heidi Kloser have work to do. McPhie slipped to 14th while Kloser didn’t even get to the starting gate. The 21-year-old injured her leg during warm-ups and needed to be helped down the mountain. Her status for the second qualifier remains uncertain.
Jung-Hwa Seo of South Korea lost an edge in training and took an ugly fall that saw her leave on a stretcher. Japan’s Miki Ito veered into a wall after landing a jump during practice and also did not compete.
It was a painful reminder how just how narrow the margin is in a sport that Kearney can make look easy at times. Though she would not have been eliminated even if she crashed on Thursday, the memory of 2006 keeps her sharp as she tries to become the first moguls skier to win consecutive gold medals.
Saturday’s finals will feature three runs, just like every other event. Only, not really — because this is the Olympics.
“You have expectations of how you should feel when it’s the Olympics,” Kearney said. “Then when you don’t, you think, ‘Am I not excited enough? Am I too excited? Am I relaxed? Am I nervous?’ Ugh. Too much thinking, time to go skiing.”