Hannah Kearney

"The new face of Russia"


ADLER, Russia — The Sochi 2014 Winter Games drew Sunday night to a close, an Olympics intent on projecting the image of a strong and confident new Russia across this vast country and to the world beyond, with a mighty Russian team awakening the echoes of the mighty Soviet sport system to prideful spectator cheers of “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” Albeit, over 17 days, to the beat of “Get Lucky” by a Russian police choir. And cheerful volunteers yelling, “Good morning!” while dancing to the Black Eyed Peas.

A tableau from the closing ceremony -- brides hanging from helium-filled balloons

“This is the new face of Russia, our Russia,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, said Sunday night at the closing ceremony to more cheers. “And for us, these Games are the best-ever.”

For the rest of this post, please click through to NBCOlympics.com: nbco.ly/1hmiPVk


Best in the world -- believe it

Three weeks ago, in Sochi, Russia, Bode Miller, America's best male Alpine skier, smashed his left knee coming off one of the jumps on what will be the Olympic course at the 2014 Winter Games. He tried to ski through the pain the next weekend at the World Cup stop in Bansko, Bulgaria. But it wasn't good. So Miller flew back to the United States, to have the knee scoped at a clinic in Vail, Colo.

If you know Miller and his ways, you know he could well have called off his season right then and there.

But no.

From the get-go, Miller had purchased a round-trip ticket. He was always intending to go back to Europe, back to the next stop, in Crans Montana, Switzerland -- underscoring the incredible culture that is at the core of everything the U.S. Ski Team does, manifested in its motto, "best in the world."

That slogan was so easy to make fun of when the Americans were anything but. But look now, and understand the success that is across the board, from alpine to cross-country to snowboard to freestyle to ski jumping and Nordic combined, and these are just a few of the many examples:

Lindsey Vonn on Sunday won a super-G at Bansko, her 10th World Cup victory this season, 51st lifetime. The 18th super-G win of her career, she is now the World Cup leader in the discipline. Vonn is way ahead in the World Cup overall points race for the 2012 season.

Cross-country skier Kikkan Randall leads the World Cup sprint standings.

The incomparable Shaun White is, plainly put, the best snowboarder on Planet Earth. Kelly Clark has 15 straight halfpipe wins.

Moguls artist Hannah Kearney won 16 straight World Cup races.

Sarah Hendrickson has six World Cup ski jumping victories.

Tom Wallisch has won every slopestyle contest this season but one.

For every Vonn, by the way, there are many, many others. The Americans have depth.

The U.S. women's alpine team, for instance, currently leads every other country in the world in the downhill standings, including the vaunted Austrians and Swiss. Racing in Sochi earlier this month, for instance, four of six American starters made the top-10: Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Stacey Cook and Alice McKennis. And Laurenne Ross was 18th, Leanne Smith 26th.

Someone ought to do a Harvard Business School case study about the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn.

For real.

There are huge corporations that could learn a lot from the U.S. Ski Team. Business-wise. Culture-wise. Success-wise.

All those things are intertwined.

When Bill Marolt took over, USSA had revenues of $8.14 million. That was for the fiscal year ending April 1996.

The fiscal year ending April 2012? Revenues will total $24.75 million.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. team won 37 medals, best in the world. The U.S. Ski Team accounted for 21 of those 37 medals.

Miller won three in Vancouver, including gold in the super-combined; Vonn won two, including downhill gold. The breakout story of the 2010 Games: the four medals won by the American Nordic combined team, testament to 14 years of consistent funding, improved coaching and training.

Marolt, USSA's president and chief executive officer, stayed the course with the Nordic combined program.

He also, over his tenure, has directed initiatives that produced the Center of Excellence, the Park City, Utah, facility that opened in May, 2009, that serves as USSA's all-in-one training center and headquarters; the Speed Center at Copper Mountain, Colo., which gives alpine racers early-season training; an ongoing partnership with 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic venues that includes, among other things, roller ski train development at Soldier Hollow; and an overall organizational focus on what's called "sport science," everything from cutting-edge advances to simple stuff like making sure American athletes drink enough water on airplane trips.

Staying hydrated on those long-haul flights, U.S. sport scientists have found, makes a huge difference in keeping the athletes healthy so they can actually make use of those training days when it's winter Down Under but summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

A new initiative: combining sports and school in an academy. If you are, for instance, Mikaela Shiffrin, and you are turning 17 in two weeks, and you have already made a World Cup podium (Dec. 29, bronze, Lienz, Austria, slalom) but you might have designs on college and beyond -- why should you or your parents be put to that either-or?

"We want to send that message to parents," Marolt said. "This is a big commitment, a big family commitment of time and resources. They're thinking, 'If my child gets to the point where they could be an Olympic great, I'm going to have to make a choice: academics or athletics.' We don't want them to have to make that choice. They can be both."

Marolt, along with Luke Bodensteiner, USSA's executive vice president for athletics, are big believers in the vision thing and in the concept of culture driving the mission. Both, it should be noted, are former Olympic athletes -- Marolt in alpine skiing in 1964, Bodensteiner in cross-country in 1992 and 1994.

"We started with the idea of 'best in the world,' and … they thought I was nuts," Marolt said. "But you can't change it unless you put it out there. And we have done that."

Bodensteiner said the brilliance of "best in the world" is that it is one, "super-aspirational," and, two, easy to understand and translate.

He explained: "When Bill came on and said, 'We are the best in the world, or aspiring to be the best in the world,' he has never wavered from that. That is a very visible pronunciation. That goes all the way down to the deepest levels possible, down to a race in a tiny mountain somewhere. It's a simple concept but also so powerful and people feel good about being brought in.

"Part of the evolution of that statement -- and it has been interpreted so many different ways, us saying we are the best when we were not but it is something that a lot of people have aspired to -- is that it has been a filter for every decision we have made for the last 16 years: Is this going to make us better or not?"

Bode Miller, as things turned out, ultimately did have to call off the rest of his season. He got to Crans Montana and the knee just didn't hold up. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Or buy-in.

"I'm still having fun and as long as skiing is enjoyable, I'm going to continue to do it," Miller said in a statement issued by the U.S. Ski Team.

Marolt, in an interview before Miller's season would come to a close, said, "One of our strengths is the idea that we tried to create a team. Not just an athletic team but an entire organizational team where everybody buys in, everybody understands what it is you try to do. Everybody multitasks and does more than is required.

"That is what makes us so good, everybody pulling on the rope at the same time and in the same direction. That is a hard one. It is difficult to achieve, because of the personalities and the profiles of every individual, from the chairman of the board to the person answering the phone in the lobby. But it's a good team, and the team is our strength."

Hannah Kearney: a champion's consistency

Moguls skier Hannah Kearney won Olympic gold in Vancouver two years ago. Even so, she was more nervous in her qualifying run a couple days ago at the World Cup stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., than she had been in a long, long time. For one, Hannah said, "I'd had two absolutely worst days of training, back-to-back," in some measure because of the weather. The first training day, it had been 40 degrees,  hardly conducive to snow. Then the temperature dropped to zero, with high winds that knocked out power and postponed training and turned the course into, in Hannah's words, "a skating rink."

Then there was the matter of family, and friends. Generally speaking, Hannah competes in Europe. The last time her younger brother, Denny -- with whom she's particularly close -- had seen her compete was at the December, 2009, Olympic Trials in Colorado. But he had made it to Lake Placid. So, too, had her mom, Jill, and dad, Tom, and a bunch of others.


As she has done at every World Cup event for the last year without a glitch, Hannah Kearney came through. She roared through qualifying, then won the event in Lake Placid, marking her 11th consecutive World Cup moguls victory -- beating the old record of Swiss star Conny Kissling.

It was the 16th individual moguls win of Hannah's career.

In a bit of serendipity, this 11th straight victory came on the same Whiteface Mountain course where the streak started on Jan. 22, 2011.

For counting purposes -- the streak does not include the 2011 world championships, where Hannah took second in the moguls and third in the dual moguls events.

It's 11 straight World Cup events, and while it perhaps may not equal one Olympic gold it is testament to extraordinary consistency.

"It's completely different," Hannah said when asked to compare Olympic gold with this streak, adding a moment later, "There's more attention and more focus at the Olympics. But skiing well over multiple seasons against good competitors is something totally different. It's just one day at the Olympics. This is my whole life."

For several months now, Hannah has been documenting her life in a series of Facebook posts -- you can find them here -- for Lovering Volvo, a family-owned Nashua, N.H., auto dealership that sponsors her. She gets an XC60 equipped with a ski rack and bike rack, a major step up from the Toyota Yaris that used to be her ride. In return, among other things, she writes a quality blog -- hardly a surprise, perhaps, for someone who goes to Dartmouth when she's not running moguls and whose brother is a Yale graduate.

In those posts, for instance, Hannah has documented the 1,174 water jumps she made in training last summer; and the 68,092 stairs she climbed, skis in hand, to make those jumps. Those totals were all more than she had ever done before -- the better to achieve consistency this winter.

Hannah has written about how Subway sandwich shops in Finland smell exactly the same there as they do back home; about how it took 33 hours and 36 minutes to travel last month from Ruka, Finland, to Meribel, France; about the excellent jam that was her reward for all that travel; about how she, a veteran of the World Cup circuit, kills time by knitting, listening to National Public Radio podcasts, doing some laundry and maybe doing some online shopping. Oh, and some skiing.

It takes a real pro to win in Finland, where there is little daylight and this season almost no snow, and then again in France, where after that long trip the snow was abundant, and then again back home in Lake Placid, after crummy training and amid awful weather and in front of mom, dad, brother and everyone else expecting you to win.

Hannah Kearney is, at this point, a pro's pro.

If everyone she knows expects her to win -- well, she expects to win. "Anything less," she said candidly, "is a failure on some level."

Winning, especially on a bumpy mountain where one slip and you careen off course, is never guaranteed. Then again, when your heart and soul are truly in what you do, the winning comes a lot easier. And the idea of pressure is a lot different. You can embrace it instead of running from it.

"I appreciate what I am getting to do with this skiing career," Hannah Kearney said. "I love what I do."

The Hannah Kearney plan

When you can do it on Race Day consistently, then you're in the zone that, heading into the freestyle skiing world championships -- which start Wednesday in Deer Valley, Utah -- American moguls standout Hannah Kearney is locked into right now. She has won her last five World Cup starts.

Five in a row in anything is special. Five in a row in a judged sport is extraordinary. Five in a row in a sport as capricious as moguls skiing -- that's historic domination.

It's all part of the Hannah Kearney plan.

Off the hill, you can be as soft-spoken and well-spoken, thoughtful and reflective as can be, talking about cooking, baking, cleaning, organizing and mending. For real -- mending. That's the kind of thing you do when you're from Vermont.

On the hill, you're there to win. On the hill, you don't win with false modesty. You set goals. And the mission for 2011, coming off nothing less than the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics, was elemental.

"My goal this season was quite simple," she said in a telephone interview from Deer Valley. "World domination."

Maybe Hannah wins Wednesday, maybe she doesn't. It's one day. Jennifer Heil of Canada, the silver medalist in Vancouver and gold medalist from Torino in 2006, is an exceedingly good skier, too, as are any number of other women on the tour, and moguls skiing by definition is unpredictable.

Which makes the five-in-a-row streak all the more remarkable. It's even more so when you factor in the December World Cup in China, which took 50 hours of travel time just to get there. "It became a mental game that appealed to me. It all worked out in my favor," she later said in a U.S. Ski Team release about the experience.

Just one more reason why what Hannah has done on the World Cup tour this year ought to serve as a blueprint for a lot of other athletes in a lot of other sports.

You make the plan, and then you execute the plan.

It takes talent, time, commitment and -- and enormous mental toughness.

In his latest best-seller, "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell returns repeatedly to what he calls the "10,000-hour rule," suggesting that you have to do something -- that is, practice it -- roughly 10,000 hours to get good at it.

Hannah Kearney will turn 25 at the end of February. She has been on skis since she was 2.

"It's impossible to say how many hours I have put in," she said. "I would like to emphasize that I still have room for improvement. But it would not surprise me if they said I was at 10,000."

It would have completely understandable if in this post-Olympic year Hannah had opted to take it a little bit easier.

That's not, though, what great champions do.

Yes, she had won gold in Vancouver.

Yes, she won the U.S. championships six weeks later, too.

But what was in the back of her mind -- what stuck with her over the summer?


How, she wondered, could she improve?

Here is how:

She had won the 2009 World Cup season-long title. But despite winning the 2010 Olympic gold medal -- she didn't win the 2010 World Cup title. Heil did.

"My goal this year was to be incredibly consistent, to dominate the season like I had never done," she said. So even though she was now the Olympic gold medalist -- she worked and worked and worked some more.

When you're consistent, you're confident. When you're confident, the odds are that much higher you win, and win consistently.

If it were that easy to win, everyone could do it, right? But it's not, of course.

"It's basically confidence, and the knowing, and the feeling, and that all comes from doing the work and the training, and then you're standing at the top of the course," Hannah Kearney said, "to be the best you can."