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2010 Winter Olympics: Practically perfect, Kearney beats Heil for gold

CYPRESS, British Columbia — Hannah Kearney didn't intend to break hearts Saturday night.

The Vermont native was just doing what she set out to do after a bitter disappointment of her own four years ago in Torino.

"I didn't know what Jen (Heil) was feeling," said Kearney, who edged the Canadian mogul skier and defending Olympic champion in a wet, windy mogul competition Saturday night at Cypress Mountain to earn the first gold medal for the United States of America. "I heard the roar of the crowd, I heard Jen's score. I knew I was going to have to ski the run of my life."

She did just that, earning the highest score of her career, 26.63, to best the hometown favorite and World Cup leader, who skied just before Kearney. Heil finished second with a score of 25.69. Kearney's teammate, Shannon Bahrke, who lives and owns a business in Salt Lake City, became the first female freestyle skier to earn two Olympic medals by earning a bronze to go with the silver medal she won in the 2002 games.

"This is my last hurrah," said a beaming Bahrke afterward. "What a way to finish it."

Heil was smiling but subdued as she discussed earning Silver in her home country.

"I'm just so proud to be Canadian," she said. "I definitely feel I had a few gaps. I was definitely going for gold."

It may hurt Canadians even more to know that Kearney's mother is Canadian.

When asked how she felt about disappointing the thousands who braved the rain in hopes of seeing the first Olympic Gold medal ever won by a Canadian on home soil, she smiled.

"I feel happy about how I skied, so there is nothing I can do about how anyone else feels," she said. "I can sympathize, but I'm too filled with joy right now to worry about how other people feel."

Kearney didn't even make the finals in the 2006 Games, something that not only haunted her but motivated her.

"It took me a while to get over the disappointment of Torino," she said. "I felt like I let down my country, myself, my friends; I was embarrassed about my performance. I knew I had more in me. But after a few months, I moved on. Looking backward doesn't help you. Today it crossed my mind. Actually someone asked me about it. Of course it's there; it's part of my career; it's part of what got me here. It all works out."

Then she joked that she wouldn't "have cried nearly as hard" if she'd known she'd win a Gold medal just four years later. She said she's been incredibly calculated in her training, including doing more 1,000 jumps at the splash pool to perfect the tricks that she feared doing.

Her trainer gave her a card containing all the numbers from her training diary.

The card was meant to remind Kearney that she'd done the work she needed to do; all that was left was believing it was possible.

All of the hard work gave her a confidence that brought her peace, even when things weren't going her way.

"I had a great feeling," she said. "Actually, this summer I'd be driving my car and I'd just get this wonderful feeling in the pit of my stomach, like, it's going to happen. So maybe there was some of that when I crossed the line."

Heil said she has faith in her Canadian teammates and promised the country wouldn't have to wait much longer for that historic moment.

"There is no doubt about it," she said. "I was going for that gold medal. But I truly feel that I won silver. The (gold) will come for Canada. We've never been so prepared, and I'm just so proud to be Canadian at this time."

More than 7,000 people braved the wind and rain to watch the mogul competition. The athletes said they enjoyed the conditions and praised the course workers for keeping the conditions perfect.

"Like Shannon, I obviously found it fun," said Heil. "It was seriously not a problem. I think it's so incredible what the volunteers have done."

Bahrke was asked what she might tell her children about her 13 year freestyle career.

"I've had such an amazing career," she said. "I think about how many people it took to get me here. I think I'll tell them, if you want something, go for it. And it's going to take a lot of people to get there."

The two other American mogul skiers, Michelle Roark and Heather McPhie fell in finals after having impressive first-round runs. Roark plans to retire, but McPhie, who just made the World Cup Circuit, promises to be a contender for years to come.

The men compete Sunday.

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com