WEST VANCOUVER,British Columbia — Someday very soon, ‘O Canada’ will receive good air time at the Vancouver Olympics.
First, though, American Hannah Kearney gets to celebrate.
It’s a party four years in the making for the 23-year-old from New Hampshire, who slashed through the rain and down the moguls Saturday night — a remarkable run that gave America its first gold medal of these Olympics and denied Jenn Heil the honor of becoming the first Canadian to win gold on home turf.
“I know Canada hasn’t won a gold medal on their home turf, but I have a feeling they’ll do it these games,” Kearney said. “But I’m pleased that I could stop that for now.”
Heil came in as the favorite on paper — winner of her last four World Cup events — but this one really wasn’t close. Kearney scored 26.63 points to win by .94 — a wide margin in a sport often decided by tenths and hundredths.
She won in a blowout four years after entering Turin as the defending world champion but stumbled in qualifying for a 22nd-place finish that left her crying at the bottom.
This time, Kearney finished first after qualifying, then first again when it really counted — the last run of the night, when the gold medal was on the line.
“I think the qualifying run was the key to my success today,” Kearney said. “In some ways, it was redemption for the absolute failure I experienced in Torino.”
Shannon Bahrke took bronze to add to her silver from 2002 and push America’s medal total to four after the first full day of competition. Apolo Anton Ohno took silver and J.R. Celski won bronze in speedskating earlier.
But there was no bigger American performer on this day than Kearney, who insisted she was more mature, more able to turn her brain off and simply ski than she was four years ago in Italy, when she came in as a favorite and was out of the running before she reached full speed.
She owned that failure and spent a lot of time and effort trying to make sure she wouldn’t repeat it. As a reminder, her trainer put a note in her bag before the meet with a lightning bolt on the front. Inside, he calculated the hundreds of hours of conditioning work on the bike, the thousands of training exercises, water jumps and practice trips on snow.
“It’s there because it’s part of what got me here today,” Kearney said of her 2006 failure. “Everything happens for a reason. If I had known I was going to win a gold medal four years ago, I wouldn’t have cried so much.”
Indeed, it all worked out in the end.
She pulled off a back flip on her top jump and a 360-degree spin on her second, her legs knitted tightly together on both, the perfect example of the form and function judges love to see when they’re handing out Olympic gold.
Same scene as she tore through the slushy, rain-soaked moguls — knees pointed forward and down the hill and hands moving in rhythm as she dipped through the bumps.
Logging the fastest time — 27.86 seconds — didn’t hurt either, and when Kearney made it across the finish line, she knew it — pumping her fists and waiting for the score that would prove to be a blowout over Heil, the defending Olympic champ.
When Kearney’s score popped up, it brought a huge gasp from the heavily Canadian crowd.
It put a red, white and blue tinge on what was supposed to be a big day for Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the house to watch Heil, the top-ranked moguls skier in the world, who was given a great shot at becoming the first to get ‘O Canada’ played at a medals ceremony in Canada.
Instead, she’ll go down with figure skater Brian Orser, who lost the famous “Battle of the Brians” to Brian Boitano back in Calgary in 1988, settling for silver in what was Canada’s last, best chance to take that gold on home turf.
Canada also failed to win at the Summer Games in 1976 in Montreal, though Vancouver certainly will be a different story. The host country poured $110 million into its “Own the Podium” program, the goal of which was to win more medals than anyone else over these 17 days.
“I know how much hard work goes into winning any Olympic medal,” Heil said. “For me, I didn’t see the difference in the value of what date a medal is won. Canadians can be assured that that medal is coming on home soil.”
Although Heil’s medal got Canada on the board for these games, well, there’s no disputing that Canada lost this contest 2-1.
OK, so maybe Canada can get some partial credit for Kearney’s medal: Her mother grew up in Montreal, and she has an aunt and uncle and cousins who live in Vancouver and were on hand for her victory.
“I’m half-Canadian,” Kearney said, “so this is my home soil, too.”
Meanwhile, Bahrke’s bronze will look good next to the silver from 2002, to say nothing of those pink streaks in her blonde hair. The veteran landed the 360 and back-flip jumps that were the most popular combo in the competition, overcame a slight bobble after her first jump and watched her score of 25.43 hold up for a spot on the medal stand.
Unhappy after her qualifying run, and knowing this is her Olympic finale, Bahrke thought she had one special run left in her.
“I thought, it’s not over, it’s not over yet,” she said. “So I actually went in and listened to a little tape and let it rip.”
After Bahrke’s run, another Canadian hopeful, Kristi Richards, picked up too much speed between the jumps and fell. Heather McPhie, an up-and-coming American with decent medal hopes, fell after her final jump.
Japan’s Aiko Uemura finished fourth, which left Bahrke down at the bottom to hug it out with Kearney after her winning run.
American Michelle Roark finished 17th after falling on the landing of her risky, 720-degree spin on the top — a move that can win a gold, or leave you close to last.
What was most unbelievable about Kearney’s 22nd-place finish in Italy was that the mistake didn’t come doing anything difficult. She caught an edge on her second turn, never got her bearings and was out of it before she reached the finish line.
She was crying at the bottom that day.
On this night, too, but for a much different reason.
Best race she’s ever run?
“Certainly close to it,” she said. “And the best prize ever.”
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press