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Olympic Games: Hannah Kearney leads America to golden first night

Hannah Kearney won gold over Canada's Jenn Heil in the moguls competition on the first full day of competition at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

US moguls skier Hannah Kearney (center) celebrates gold with Jenn Heil of Canada (l.) and teammate Shannon Bahrke (r.)

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Opening ceremonies made Friday night Canada’s night. Saturday night, however, turned out to be America’s night, with moguls skier Hannah Kearney of Norwich, VT, leading the way.

Two events, four medals, one gold.

From the shoulder of Cypress Mountain to downtown Vancouver, the historic, the improbable, and the amazing came as thick as the unrelenting Pacific rain.

In the 1500 meters, short track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno tied Bonnie Blair’s record for most medals by an American Winter Olympian with his sixth – a silver.

In the same race, teammate J.R. Celski, who just last month needed 60-stitches to close a bone-deep skate-blade cut in his thigh, completed his comeback to take bronze.

And amid Cypress’s early spring monsoon, Hannah Kearney broke Canada’s hearts, taking moguls gold over Jennifer Heil – the favorite to win Canada’s first-ever gold on home soil. Shannon Bahrke, already a silver medalist in Salt Lake City, won bronze.

Canada still waiting for gold at home

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Most of the 7,572 fans who showed up at Cypress in ponchos, parkas, and anything else likely to keep out the pouring rain, thought this was going to be Canada’s night. Now hosting its third Olympics – Montreal in the summer of 1976 and Calgary in the winter of 1988 – Canada has yet to win a single gold in any of its Games.

North of the border, each passing event is like the ticking of a time-bomb – a nation waiting to explode when its 44-year drought inevitably ends. As the World Cup leader and defending Olympic champion, Heil was Canada’s closest thing to a gold-medal lock on the first day of the Games – and fans felt warmth in that hope if not the weather.

But there was something different about her pig-tailed competition today. In Turin, Kearney finished 22nd, failing even to make the final round – a “complete failure” she called it tonight.

But one of her strength coaches gave her a special note today. Kearney, an obsessive note-taker, had chronicled every workout this year in a diary. The coach secretly went through the entire diary, tallying up ever hour spent cycling, every stair climbed, and every practice jump made.

It was proof, scientific in its comprehensiveness, that Kearney has done everything possible to prepare for these Games.

When Heil laid down a gold-medal-quality run with only Kearney left, did she feel the pressure? “You know, pressure is just a made-up thing,” she said after the race. “I’m not skiing for face time on NBC…. I’m skiing because this is what I want to be doing.”

Just under 28 seconds later at the bottom of the run, Kearney had skied what she called the best run of her life, posting a score of 26.63, nearly full point higher than Heil.

In hindsight, the note was a masterful stroke of motivation. It was a glimpse into the mind of a girl who “would line up her toys before she could talk, in perfect order,” according to her mother, Jill Kearney.

Never did she need her parents’ prompting. At 17, without consulting them, she invested her first prize money in an IRA. When she needed to go on a trip, “she would have everything laid out in piles for all the layers and all the days – did all that on her own,” Mrs. Kearney added in an interview before the Olympics began.

'It's not every four years, it's every day'

At the top of a bumpy piste determined to intimidate her with the enormity of the moment, that preparation helped her navigate the slick, rain-soaked course and the expectations of a desperate nation assembled around the outrun.

In 2006, she was “a 19-year-old who ran track and played soccer to train for the Olympics,” she said.

Saturday night, she was a true Olympian, and if the note didn’t prove it, the medal did.

It was the same confidence in preparation that ran in a torrent from speedskater Ohno before the Olympics even began. “I have never come into an Olympic Games in this sort of shape,” he said in a pre-Games press conference.

Like Kearney, he had his own numbers: 17 pounds lighter than he was in 2002, but able to lift twice the weight he did then. Body fat: 2.5 percent.

“In the Olympics, we have a saying: It’s not every four years, it’s every day.”

An Olympic dream revived

For Celski, simply seeing this day was payment enough. In an Olympics that has already seen the tragic in a winter sports crash, Celski’s story is even more particularly poignant.

When he crashed during last month’s Olympic trials and sustained serious injury, he told his mother that his Olympic dream was finished.

It was, in fact, just beginning. “I’m ecstatic to be here and to be able to participate,” he said after the 1500 meter race.

For Celski, it seems, Saturday’s bronze medal is merely an attendance award.

For Kearney, gold means something more than personal achievement, too: “I really want to be part of an Olympic montage” – those slow motion NBC glory moments set to music and engraved on the memories of millions of Americans.

For America, the Olympics’ first night of competition might be worth a montage all its own.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting.

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