WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Four years ago, U.S. moguls skier Hannah Kearney sat in the stands in Turin after collapsing and placing a dismal 22nd in the qualifying round as Canadian Jenn Heil proudly climbed atop the podium for gold.
It was a moment Kearney never wanted to repeat.
"I felt like I let down my country, I let down myself, my friends," she said. "I was embarrassed by my performance. I knew I had more in me."
She proved it Saturday, when she exorcised that nightmarish performance and spoiled the party for Heil with a dominating victory on slushy Cypress Mountain. Kearney turned her showdown with the defending Olympic champion into a blowout, posting a score of 26.63 to claim the first U.S. gold medal in Vancouver. She also postponed Canada's long-awaited gold medal celebration for at least one more day.
Kearney 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.
"Everything happens for a reason," she said of her 2006 failure. "If I had known I was going to win a gold medal four years ago, I wouldn't have cried so much."
Kearney put up a scintillating run in front of the heavily pro-Canadian crowd.
Moments after Heil put up a score of 25.69 to catapult into first place, Kearney put together the run of a lifetime. The skier who admits she was once afraid of being upside down completed a backflip and a 360-degree turn before blazing across the finish line with the fastest time of the night.
While Kearney wasn't sure it was a gold-medal winning run, the crowd seemed to have no doubt, letting out a small groan as everyone waited anxiously for her score to be posted. When it was, she celebrated with a gang tackle from teammate Shannon Bahrke, who bookended her silver at Salt Lake City in 2002 with a bronze in Vancouver.
Heil came in having won her last four World Cup events and was considered one of the nation's best bets to finally reach the top of the podium in a home games. Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed up to cheer on Heil, hoping she could provide the golden moment the country had invested $110 million in as part of its "Own the Podium" program.
Heil skied cleanly but not quite crisply enough, and she knew it.
"I definitely feel like I had a few gaps," Heil said. "There's no doubt about it. I was going for gold."
Kearney's run was the kind of dominant performance U.S. Freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen knew she needed. Wintersteen told Kearney not to play it safe, that the only way to ensure victory was to erase all doubt from the minds of the seven judges who are looking a combination of speed, form and artistry over the series of mounds and jumps along the 800-foot course.
Kearney provided all three.
"As a staff, we kept telling her she's gotta make it decisive because Jenn's on her home court," Wintersteen said. "Not to take anything away from Jenn, but it happens in freestyle. It's a judged sport. There are emotions. She had to leave no question."
While she's not apologizing for spoiling Heil's homecoming, Kearney is quick to point out her Canadian ties. Her mother is from Montreal and she had relatives from Vancouver watch her soar to the first U.S.'s freestyle gold medal since 1998. She understands Canada's desire to win the most medals better than most Americans. She just didn't want it to happen in her event.
"I know Canada hasn't won a gold medal on their home turf, I have a feeling they'll do it these games, but I'm pleased I could stop that for now," she said.
When asked if she'd split her gold with Canada, Kearney paused for a second before shaking her head with a smile.
Heil refused to be disappointed.
"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."
It just won't come from Heil. She'll go down with figure skater Brian Orser, who narrowly 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.
Kearney hopes her performance is duplicated countless times during the next two weeks.
"I really want to be part of an Olympic montage and I think I've earned my right now," she said. "If this can send a positive vibe and set a tone for the Americans, I'll take it."