U.S, Wins first Gold

Hannah Kearney waited four years to overcome her bitter disappointment. Canada will have to wait at least one more day before it can really let loose.

The 23-year-old from New Hampshire slashed through the rain and down the moguls Saturday night – a remarkable run that gave America its first gold medal of the Vancouver Games and denied Jenn Heil the honor of becoming the first Canadian to win gold on home turf.

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.

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She won in a blowout four years after coming in as the favorite but stumbling in qualifying for a 22nd-place finish that left her crying at the bottom.

Shannon Bahrke took bronze to add to her silver from 2002 and push America’s medal total to three after the first full day of competition. Apolo Anton Ohno took silver 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 the defending world champion and was out of the running before she even reached full speed.

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 with the bumps.

Logging the fastest time – 27.86 seconds – didn’t hurt anything, 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.

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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 may have been 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.

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 Kearney’s medal counts as half a medal for Canada. 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 know Canada hasn’t won a gold medal on their home turf, but I have a feeling they’ll do it these games,” she said. “But I’m pleased that I could stop that for now.”

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.

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 hard. 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.”

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