At age 19, Hannah Kearney broke through to claim the world title in women's moguls, positioning herself for a possible gold medal run in Torino. But after a disappointing 22nd-place finish, the Vermont native has had to come back from a torn ACL and a lingering concussion before ascending to the top of the World Cup moguls standings in 2008-09.
What are your memories of the day you tore your ACL?
France, February 5, 2007. It was a World Cup. I'm in the middle section of the course going as fast as I possibly can, and you know when you jam your finger playing basketball? That's what it felt like on my knee when I hit one turn. I took a couple of deep breaths, waved my pole for some help. They came over, clicked my ski off. I put it back on and slid down the side of the course. The doctor lays you down on your back and pulls on your knee and says, "I'm so sorry. It's your ACL." Tears start just pouring out of my face uncontrollably. I didn't know I'd be that affected by it, but I was really upset.
But you have said that there were some positives to the injury. What were they?
It turned out to be the best thing that could've possibly happened. I needed a break. I had burnt out from the season before, the poor Olympic experience [22nd in Torino]. I hadn't had a break since I was nine years old and started competing, so this injury allowed me to take that break, not live out of my suitcase, be home in Vermont, adopt a dog, and learn how to train. I felt really motivated, which was a good sign that I really wanted to make a comeback. ... However, I only made one competition and got a concussion that following season when I returned to the sport, and was out for the remainder of that season. So this past season was the first full season I've had since then and it went really well. I attribute that to the work I put in coming back from the injury and the break that I had, so I was really refreshed and had a much better attitude this past season.
You grew up with a lot of animals in your home. Who's your current sidekick?
I have a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog named Lola. I acquired [her] the month after I blew out my knee. I was going to be home for a significant amount of time and there was an older woman in my hometown that couldn't take care of her anymore, so I adopted her and she's been the greatest pet. She's a wonderful animal.
Being sidelined with an injury, how much did having a pet around help the recovery process?
Huge. [Lola] was a great rehab partner. Just getting out, walking, hiking. Plus when you live by yourself and you're injured it can be depressing, but luckily I really like the peace and quiet of that and the privacy. But having a dog who was a great companion. She sleeps with me every night. She sleeps at my feet while I'm watching TV, and I take her on lots of walks and hikes so it was a good rehab partner, just getting out and being active.
Given all that you've been through, how rewarding was it to break through to win the World Cup moguls title in 2008-09?
So satisfying. An Olympic gold medal is something that almost seems like a fantasy. Yes, of course I want it, since I was a little kid before I even knew what the World Cup tour was. But as an athlete in the sport, as you get to the highest level of it, the World Cup overall is an incredible achievement and I've watched [Canada's] Jen Heil win it year after year after year, and to last the whole season and be that consistent is a feat. It is really difficult to do, so to win it myself when I'm competing against Jen Heil and the best skiers in the world, my own teammates, it means a lot to me. I'm trying to savor it, and yet use it to motivate me to continue to train really hard because everyone's going to be gunning for me now.
You've become known as the moguls skier who competes with braids. What's the latest on your trademark hairstyle?
They are still going. I am proud to say I competed for the first time of my career [in 2008-09] without braids, just once, to sort of prove to myself that I wasn't a crazy, superstitious person. And I won, but then the next competition I went back to the braids. It started because I didn't want to look like a boy, and helmets are not feminine. Plus then I have a really sensitive neck and I don't like scratchy things on my neck so it gets the hair out of your neck too. It just became my signature look. I don't know. That's just what I like to do with my hair. So it's still going. I haven't outgrown it yet. I'm 23 years old and still wearing pigtails.
Compiled by Matt Stroup, NBCOlympics.com