Cloudy
52°
Cloudy
Hi 59° | Lo 42°

Norwich Bids Kearney Good Luck, Again

  • Skier Hannah Kearney does a mock mogul run as former Olympian Jeff Hastings collects the cheers of Kearney's mother Jill Kearney Niles and Marion Cross School students in Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. The school hosted an Olympic sendoff for Kearney before she leaves for her third Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Skier Hannah Kearney does a mock mogul run as former Olympian Jeff Hastings collects the cheers of Kearney's mother Jill Kearney Niles and Marion Cross School students in Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. The school hosted an Olympic sendoff for Kearney before she leaves for her third Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • USA Ski Team member and Olympian Hannah Kearney wears gold medals given to her by Marion Cross School second graders on Tuesday, January 21, 2014, to wish her well at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    USA Ski Team member and Olympian Hannah Kearney wears gold medals given to her by Marion Cross School second graders on Tuesday, January 21, 2014, to wish her well at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marion Cross School students look up to USA Ski Team member Hannah Kearney as she encourages them to follow their dreams, during an Olympic sendoff n Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. Kearney, who grew up in Norwich and still calls it her home base, said she was grateful for the support she had growing up that allowed her to become a professional athlete.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Marion Cross School students look up to USA Ski Team member Hannah Kearney as she encourages them to follow their dreams, during an Olympic sendoff n Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. Kearney, who grew up in Norwich and still calls it her home base, said she was grateful for the support she had growing up that allowed her to become a professional athlete.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Skier Hannah Kearney does a mock mogul run as former Olympian Jeff Hastings collects the cheers of Kearney's mother Jill Kearney Niles and Marion Cross School students in Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. The school hosted an Olympic sendoff for Kearney before she leaves for her third Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • USA Ski Team member and Olympian Hannah Kearney wears gold medals given to her by Marion Cross School second graders on Tuesday, January 21, 2014, to wish her well at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Marion Cross School students look up to USA Ski Team member Hannah Kearney as she encourages them to follow their dreams, during an Olympic sendoff n Norwich, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2014. Kearney, who grew up in Norwich and still calls it her home base, said she was grateful for the support she had growing up that allowed her to become a professional athlete.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Norwich — OK, Norwich, the clock’s ticking. And Mike Holland has his thumb on the start-stop button.

Speaking before the massed student body of the Marion Cross School on Tuesday, Holland admitted sensing the end of an era. Norwich native Hannah Kearney leaves for the Sochi Olympics soon. The town has been sending off its Olympians regularly for the last 30 years, meaning Kearney — who has said publicly this will be her last Winter Games — could be the capstone of a beloved line.

Not if Holland has anything to say about it, however.

“Our next ski jump practice is tomorrow night at 6,” the two-time Olympic ski jumper announced to more than a few laughs. “It all starts at Ford Sayre and here in the Marion Cross School. … Bring your alpine skis, bring your parents, boots and helmet.”

The next one is out there. Of that Kearney is certain.

That athlete — he or she — will then have a warm send-off waiting. As it has since delivering Holland and Jeff Hastings to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, the town and school said its goodbyes to Kearney for the third time on Tuesday.

(Fearing metal musical instruments might freeze to the lips of its young band members in the single-degree chill, the school moved the ceremony into its gym instead.)

The Hanover High School graduate and Dartmouth College freshman returned the emotional investment with a gold medal in the women’s moguls in Vancouver four years ago. She enters Sochi as the podium favorite, the top-ranked woman in her sport, a three-time defending FIS World Cup champion again grateful for the support.

“I know most of you had to be here anyway because it’s a school day, so it wasn’t your choice,” Kearney deadpanned to the kids, “but it means a lot to me.”

With three decades of practice and execution, the Norwich Olympic send-off is now tradition.

The school band opened with a few bars from the theme to Star Wars — that would have played well outdoors with Tuesday’s ice planet Hoth-inspired temperatures — to preface MCS principal Bill Hammond’s remarks. Hammond reflected upon the changes wrought by each four-year Olympic cycle, and the rare opportunity given to celebrate one MCS graduate’s fortunes.

“This is a little bit of magic that Hannah does,” Hammond said. “It’s magic because, one, she works very hard to get where she is. It’s magic because she’s an exceptional person. And it’s magic because we want to give her a little bit of an Olympic ring, too.”

With a shake of his left sleeve, Hammond produced a silver ring on a chain to drape over Kearney’s shoulders. Students followed later with several homemade gold medals, some on red ribbons, others stuck to red-white-and-blue.

“I’ve already won!” Kearney exclaimed as each was delivered.

Kearney goes to Russia with a good shot of adding to a healthy trophy haul.

The 27-year-old leads the World Cup circuit halfway through its 12-stop tour. With three wins and five podiums in six starts, she holds a 54-point lead on Canada’s Justine Dufour-Lapointe, who will be with her two sisters, Justine and Maxime, in Sochi.

Although Sunday’s fourth-place finish at Val St. Come, Quebec, was her worst of the winter, Kearney said it won’t affect her defense of her Olympic title. Moguls qualifications are scheduled for Feb. 6 — the day before the opening ceremonies — with the finals on Feb. 8.

“The last two results were not good, but those are things brushed off pretty easily; I don’t feel defeated by those mistakes, because it was exactly that,” Kearney said. “In Lake Placid (a third-place result last Wednesday), it was an error on my final run, so I had two good runs and one run where I made a big mistake. The same thing happened in Quebec. … I’ve historically responded well to stepping away and taking a break, and that’s exactly the opportunity we have now before Sochi.

“So it’s perfect.”

Kearney now has an arsenal of goods to pack that “will allow Hannah to eat, breathe and sleep Norwich” while away, Holland said. Among the gifts:

∎ A bacon, egg and cheese McWhit’s sandwich, which Holland recommended be nibbled upon lightly during Kearney’s planned stay in Russia. “Might want to put it on dry ice,” he recommended.

∎ A large plastic bottle — affixed with a breathing mask — filled with what Holland called “fresh Norwich air.”

∎ Hastings’ familiar offering of a bottle of Norwich water, collected from the source — the bathroom at Dan and Whit’s. “I let it run a little bit first, don’t worry,” Hastings cracked.

∎ A bag of cheers from the Marion Cross students, collected in a sealed bag as Kearney mimicked a 20-second mogul run.

Hastings admitted the notion of a town the size of Norwich sending Olympians on a regular basis is “crazy.” Just because she’s wrapping the Olympic portion of her career doesn’t mean it has to end soon, Kearney cautioned.

“Somehow, someone will step up,” she said. “I have no doubt there’s something. Now that women’s ski jumping is in, too? Mike was advertising the practice tomorrow night.”

That’s right, Norwich. The clock’s ticking. Batter up.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.