Hannah Kearney, who won the first Olympic gold medal for the United States at the Vancouver games this year, wrote exclusively for MTV News about her experiences at the games.
I am a freestyle mogul skier who, on February 13, became the first American to win a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The moment I crossed the finish line in my final run, having just skied the best run of my life, I was filled with joy and satisfaction. That may have been the best part of the Olympics for me. Or maybe the best was when my score flashed on the Jumbotron and my bronze medalist teammate tackled me because she realized that I was the newest Olympic champion.
Actually, that moment may have been topped the next night when I walked into a stadium packed with 20,000 people to receive my medal. On television I have watched countless athletes from different countries, sports and Olympics stand proudly at the top of the podium and shed tears. They symbolized the Olympics for me because Olympic medals represent all of the hard work and sacrifices made by the athletes as well as the people who helped them reach the top of their sports. I was prepared to be overwhelmed with emotion when the "Star Spangled Banner" began to play, but it happened long before that.
During staging for the ceremony, I looked up over the curtain and caught a glimpse of people packed onto the third balcony of the stadium to cheer for the previous day's medalists. The number of people was unexpected, and whether it was the surprise of it or my lack of sleep over the previous 35 hours, I almost lost it. I was nervous and excited about being presented to the crowd. My heart was pounding in my chest, much faster than it was when I stood in the start gate at the top of my Olympic run. Hearing the Canadian crowd roar for their silver medalist encouraged my tears. Hearing my own name and the equally supportive cheer was unbelievable. My mother said that I looked the happiest she has ever seen me. I remember thinking, "Be in the moment. You will want to remember this." Luckily, hundreds of photographers and video cameras will help me never forget.
Those same cameras broadcast an emotional and personal few minutes of my life to the world. With that exposure comes judgment. I savored my time on top of the podium by watching the American flag rise up out of the crowd as the anthem played, thinking about how every single second of training I've done was for this minute and how many people played a role in my achievement. Behind me, my teammate placed her hand over her heart and sang along. I have read comments about my lack of these common gestures of respect and patriotism. I did not mean to offend anyone and I am certainly not unpatriotic. I simply did what felt right at the moment, and I guess I will have to get used to judgments if I plan on ever being in the public's eye. This judgment is less harsh than the YouTube video I found titled "Hannah Kearney is an Ogre," because my voice got really low at one point during an interview. It is almost flattering that someone would even bother to take the time to post such a silly video of me. I will learn to handle criticism with grace and avoid taking the comments too personally.
Fortunately, the positive moments grossly outnumber the negative ones. The experience of being an Olympian is one that can never be taken away from you. The 104 pieces of Team USA clothing and swag that we received from Nike and Ralph Lauren upon our arrival in Vancouver, along with an Olympic ring (which I paid good money to upgrade to white gold and diamonds), make excellent mementos. During an orientation following dinner after the uniform collection, I was prompted to write a note to myself. I wrote, "My goal is to win a gold medal. I am ready." I kept this piece of paper in my camera case for the duration of the games. Good thing I achieved my goal, or I would not have been able to afford the ring upgrade!
The Opening Ceremonies were a global celebration of athleticism and performance, unrivaled by anything I have experienced in my entire life. I spent four hours being shuffled from one hallway to another, waiting to walk into the stadium. I was dressed in hiking boots, belted white sweatpants tucked into them and a cashmere/wool turtleneck sweater underneath a down coat. Topped off with a wool hat, I was dressed for an outdoor ceremony in Siberia, not the indoor one in rainy Vancouver. Luckily I had the savvy to put on my Red Sox T-shirt first, so I could strip down and prevent myself from passing out and dehydrating the night before my Olympic competition. This form of torture was all worthwhile when I heard "The United States of America" announced and I walked up the ramp into the stadium to a roar like I have never heard before. Dancers, flashing lights, screams, cheers and a group of U.S. athletes 200-strong signified the start of something that was bigger than me.
I had to leave the ceremony moments after walking in and listening to an athlete-tribute song by Nelly Furtado and Brian Adams in order to get to bed at a decent hour. I watched the rest of the ceremony from our house on the other side of the city, and the fireworks from the back patio. I carried the excitement and feeling of pride to the mogul course the next day. Representing our country in a glorified American flag uniform, in pouring rain, fueled by a playlist of Akon, Britney, Black Eyed Peas, Ke$ha, James Morrison, Tom Petty, Journey and Van Morrison, I won the gold medal and jumpstarted the U.S. medal count. What makes the Olympics so special is that for two weeks, our country can all cheer for the same athletes and teams.
The perks to winning a gold medal have been incredible. I may not have been skiing for TV time or endorsements, but that doesn't mean I won't enjoy them. Hearing from people from all walks of life after the event has been touching. Americans in the South that had never seen skiing were impressed with my performance, and even a sick child at a hospital in my hometown liked my interview. I have more Facebook friend requests than I know what to do with. Some of the media attention has been overwhelming since I have never experienced it on this level as an athlete in an obscure sport. However, I am grateful for the support and attention that has come to me and the sport of mogul skiing.
I have had the opportunity to appear on the "Today" show, "Good Morning America" and MTV. I've met Matt Lauer and Al Roker, Olympics-coverage host Bob Costas, Billy Bush from "Access Hollywood and hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Tom Werner, the chairman of the Boston Red Sox, called to ask me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch during the opening series of 2010 against the Yankees. This is something I have been dreaming about and consider a huge honor. There was even a rumor of Ben & Jerry's honoring me with my own flavor, but it turned out to be just that. I tasted my first sip of Dom Perignon when a generous club owner turned out to be an ex-mogul skier and fan.
I am on my way home to Vermont from Vancouver, where surely the perks and attention will die down eventually. I am scheduled to spend my birthday in a parade that will visit the local schools so I can share my excitement and medal with the community that has played an important role in my development as an elite athlete. It sounds much more exciting than three years ago when I spent my 21st birthday on crutches as I recovered from knee surgery that ended my ski season and changed my life. This gold medal experience and success will also undoubtedly change my life — let's just hope it doesn't change me.