A Champion’s Next Challenge: At 29, Norwich’s Hannah Kearney Makes the Leap Into Retirement

Sunday, April 19, 2015
Norwich — Life begins at 65 — miles per hour, that is — in a pickup truck, on an interstate, pointed west, with a dog as co-pilot.

It begins two time zones away with the resumption of school, picking up what was essentially set aside more than a decade ago, when the mountain became the classroom, where the student — over time — became the teacher.

Norwich’s Hannah Kearney is a competitive moguls skier no more. She closed a 13-year professional career on March 27 with a win at the U.S. Freestyle Championships in Colorado. That was the icing. A FIS World Cup dual moguls win in France 12 days earlier was the cake, a victory that cemented a share of a significant record and secured Kearney’s spot as one of this nation’s greatest ski athletes.

None of this guarantees Kearney her future.

Sitting at a picnic table on a sun-splashed afternoon last week, the 29-year-old said her life isn’t coming to a full stop just because her competitive years are done. Hardly. Her commute will soon change, the need to jet to Europe or Asia for an event replaced by a 20-minute drive to school in Utah. Where skiing dominated her outdoors time, mountain biking or running or a hike with her Labrador mix, Finn, will take over.

And then there’s school, the continuation of a college education started with part-time studies at Dartmouth College four years ago. Kearney has enrolled at Salt Lake City’s Westminster College, which offers tuition-free studies for U.S. Ski Team athletes who enroll in a class before they retire from the slopes.

When you’ve paid full Ivy League freight for three terms, free sells.

She’s had 13 winters — from her World Cup debut as a driven teenager through six FIS moguls championships, four more overall freestyle titles, a record-tying 46 World Cup victories and three Olympics, two of which netted medals — to anticipate and work toward this new chapter of life. A frugal nature, the byproduct of a Vermont upbringing, led her to bank much of her competitive and endorsement earnings. It has left Kearney room to contemplate the possibilities even as she remains uncertain of what those possibilities may evolve to be.

“I’m leaving all of the options open,” Kearney said. “For example, even this summer I think I’ll probably just take one, maybe two classes. I’m not in a rush. I also am not young, but until I have a better idea of what my next passion is, it doesn’t seem like forcing it is a good idea, just taking classes for the sake of getting through it, so I’d rather use the time to explore.

“This is the last stage of my life where I may be able to travel and not be encumbered by training camps and a job. I’m trying to use this time wisely, but I don’t know yet what that means exactly.”

Two of her moguls predecessors faced similar situations when they retired. They ended up going in different directions and returned to the same conclusion.

Donna Weinbrecht, whose World Cup wins record Kearney tied in France, still includes skiing in her professional life, frequently returning to Vermont to work specialty clinics. Liz McIntyre took advantage of an opportunity to enter coaching for a time, but it was her ski travels that ultimately determined the course of her post-competition life.

Neither woman saw her future develop instantly. They expect the same for Kearney.

“I think probably what she’s doing is taking a little time to catch her breath and reflect on her accomplishments,” the Lyme native McIntyre said on Thursday from Colorado, where she owns an energy-efficiency consulting business.

“It’s really hard, in the heat of the battle, to still focus on what you want to do and what the next thing is, that you never get to sit back and take a deep breath and say, ‘I did it; this is where I am in my life now.’ Hopefully, she is having that opportunity to sort of take stock and just enjoy a moment of fulfillment.”

“It’s tough. For me, I was still focused to be so driven and be good at something,” Weinbrecht said during a U.S. Ski Team teleconference last month.

“It’s a lifestyle that you’re so accustomed to. It is a shock to the system. You get pretty melancholy, but you figure how to balance your life and whether you find that next thing that will give you that much joy and passion.”

Stopping the Ride

There’s a value to being still, and Kearney presumably will find it. Eventually. Weinbrecht and McIntyre both did.

A northern New Jersey native who did much of her bump training at Killington as a youth, Weinbrecht was America’s first mogul skiing star. Emerging as the sport gained Olympic sanction, Weinbrecht won the first women’s moguls gold medal offered in 1992 in Albertville, France, ruling over the World Cup circuit for another decade after that.

By 1998, Weinbrecht had made two more Olympic teams, won five World Cup titles and was on her way to a record seven national championships. Having missed out on a bronze at the ’98 Olympics in Japan by one spot, Weinbrecht felt it was time to step aside.

Her body said otherwise.

“I had heart palpitations,” Weinbrecht said in a telephone interview last week. “My body was relaxing, and it was very physical for me. I was flying to Utah to do some sponsorship, doing a convention, and I knew something was happening. My heart almost jumped out of my chest. I was very sore. I went to a cardiologist, and he said everything was fine. But it was very physical, what I went through.”

Weinbrecht chalks up the experience to being “too focused” on her skiing, not taking the time to reflect on her accomplishments. She returned to competition and found leaving the athletic arena much easier when she finally put away her competition skis in 2002 at age 37.

Like Kearney, Weinbrecht squirreled away as much of her of winnings and sponsorship earnings as she could so she’d have a financial cushion when retirement finally became real.

“I was doing well, and also my parents and I had a great accountant, so I put money away and it was invested,” Weinbrecht said. “It helps with the transition to know you have that security.”

Weinbrecht spent 14 years chasing crystal globes and Olympic medals. McIntyre did the same over 13 winters, albeit with less success.

A four-time event winner on the World Cup tour, the Hanover-born McIntyre’s watershed moment came at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where she took silver in women’s moguls, following in Weinbrecht’s ski trails. McIntyre retired from competition in ’98. When the bulk of the U.S. moguls coaching staff moved on after that season, officials persuaded McIntyre to become a coach. She continued in that role through the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, the Olympics where Kearney took her first unsuccessful crack at a medal.

“It will be interesting if Hannah feels this way — I sort of felt like, ‘OK, I’ve been there, done that,’ ” McIntyre said of ending her competitive career. “I had to get out of bed early and work and work and work. Now, if I want to do a sport, I can just do it in a relaxed manner. I don’t have to be the best. I don’t have to train. If it’s a terrible day, I don’t go skiing — those sorts of things. I didn’t find much of a hole, as far as the competition goes.”

Ultimately, the one place where McIntyre enjoyed her most consistent success set the tone for her current career.

All four of McIntyre’s World Cup event victories came at the Tignes resort in the French Alps, the first in 1987, the last a decade later. The course on which she recorded those four wins no longer exists — the glacier upon which she excelled then has receded so far it no longer support ski activities.

McIntyre stayed in Colorado after coaching and now lives in Granby, a small town of 1,500 located an hour and a half west of Denver. She consults on energy-efficiency projects and grant writing, among other things.

“I have to say one of my passions — and I think it came from skiing — was climate change, and it was mostly informed by the fact that the glacier where I won my first World Cup is no longer there,” said McIntyre, a Hanover High graduate (like Kearney) who earned a Dartmouth degree in 1987. “The lift was taken out. They can’t have a surface lift there anymore. Because of that, I’ve been into energy efficiency.”

Skiing continues to support Weinbrecht when she conducts her specialty clinics. Skiing set McIntyre toward her future.

It will probably have a role in Kearney’s life in some fashion as well.

It’s Only Business

Fear not for Hannah Kearney the civilian. Her competitive success combined with a self-admitted frugal streak have set her up adequately for the start of post-professional life.

Over her 13 World Cup seasons, Kearney earned between 6,500 and 8,500 Swiss francs — roughly $6,750 to $8,750 — for each of her 46 victories. The FIS paid out for the top 10 spots in each event, so Kearney also earned plenty of cash for her near-misses (a total of 71 podiums in 117 World Cup starts). Not as much money as an Alpine racing star such as Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn might collect, certainly, but something.

Of equal — possibly greater — importance has been the endorsement earnings that have followed her on-slope accomplishments. Ken Sowles, one of Kearney’s Burlington-based agents, expects opportunities to continue presenting themselves, even in retirement.

“She’s one of the highest-paid freestyle skiers, if not the highest-paid, and it’s hard to say when you’re retiring if you will stay up to that level,” Sowles said last week. “I’m not sure how much time she will commit to it as well.

“If she wants to be a spokesperson for a resort, then she’ll be putting more time in on a regular basis. Those kinds of endorsements bring in more money, but they are more time-intensive than a simple one-off thing.”

When she finally closed her career, Weinbrecht discovered she didn’t have to divorce herself from her on-snow identity in order to get by.

In retirement, Weinbrecht continued her connection at Killington. She returns to do specialty clinics, still enjoys the resort’s Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge each spring, still appreciates being identified with the sport in which she made herself known.

She has a settled life that’s also a little unsettled, and she likes that. Centered in northern New Jersey, she could be in Vermont working for Killington one week and the next be in New York City, where her fiance works.

Having a Park City address will work in Kearney’s favor, Weinbrecht predicted.

“She’s in the right place, because there will be so many opportunities to do corporate ski outings,” Weinbrecht said. “Everybody does those in Utah. She’s going to be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities. There are so many opportunities for public speaking, and she’s very good at that.”

It’s in those moments that the hardware Kearney has earned — specifically, her gold medal from Vancouver in 2010 and the bronze that followed in Sochi, Russia, four years later — will become important assets.

“If you know her, you know that she is very promotable, very endorsable,” said Sowles, whose clients include Alpine racing stars Miller, Ted Ligety and David Chodounsky, the former Dartmouth College skier. “She has all of the pieces: the gold medal, the great speaking. She’s really a naturally nice person, one of my favorites to work with. She has doors open where some athletes don’t have that.

“She has all of the tools to do stuff. It just depends on where she wants to take things.”

She may have already ruled one out.

“I did talk to someone from NBC, and they said, ‘DO NOT go into this world. You can do so many greater things,’ ” Kearney said. “I said thank you. I would actually love to do something like that, but with the sport of mogul skiing, you can’t make a living from that.”

An Ending, a Beginning

It’s still too fresh, too recent of an occurrence, for Kearney to start reminiscing on what no longer is.

She describes her final season as “fairy-tale” for how it turned out. She returned for one post-Sochi campaign because she felt she still had some good results in her system. The wins, the trophies, the accolades ultimately backed her beliefs.

“I think I finally reached the point where I gained the respect of most of my teammates, and they were so much younger that me that it created — not in a weird way — a very respectful, youthful feel to the team,” Kearney said. “They would copy my workouts or ask me what I was doing, which was a far cry from being the 16-year-old they were all annoyed at because they were being beaten by a 16-year-old.

“It was really fun. I felt more like a leader than any other time.”

There are some aspects of her competitive life she’s still happy to toss aside. Airports, for one. Water-ramp training, her summer scourge. Some of the accumulated gear from her years on the slopes. Kearney spent part of her 10 days home between the end of competition and her departure for Utah to ship out 30 pieces of memorabilia to various parts of the globe as vessels for fundraising.

“It was quite an adventure,” she said, “but it was a great way to get rid of things that I had that were meaningful, but not enough to hold on to. They would be better off raising money for charity, so that was a fun project.”

What college holds is also something of an unknown.

The courses Kearney took during her three Dartmouth springs went all over the place — economics, environmental justice, biological anthropology, international politics, psychology, Hinduism, the history of the Crusades. They reflected less a person following a path than one in search of that path.

“I’m better off as someone who does one thing as best I can,” she said. “If I get spread too thin, I get stressed out and it doesn’t work. I can’t give school the attention it deserves. I’ve been able to save enough money while skiing for reasons like living in my childhood home-slash-living in an Olympic training center to save any money that I’ve earned.

“I’ll be able to survive for a while. I’ll especially be able to survive now that I’m not paying Dartmouth’s tuition. This was a huge part of the process of deciding where to go to school. A free school buys me a lot more time.”

Kearney has prepared for her immediate future, however.

In addition to registering at Westminster, she has opened a bank account and set up a post office box. She’s bought a share in a CSA — community shared agriculture — which will give her regular access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and, she hopes, help expand an interest in cooking.

Having 1-year-old Finn along will probably mean more hiking or running and less skiing. Here’s where Kearney’s frugality again comes to the fore.

“I bet I won’t ski very much because the cost is outrageous,” she said. “I’ll probably buy a season’s pass at Park City next winter because I am living, oh, about 200 yards from the ski hill. I bet I won’t ski that much for about a year.

“Volkl (one of Kearney’s equipment sponsors) generously gave me my first pair of ATs — Alpine touring gear, with skins on them — so with the dog … it’ll be more hiking and using mountains and skiing and the beautiful scenery and outdoor exercise, which is what we got into skiing for in the first place. It’s a lifelong hobby — plus you don’t have to buy a lift ticket if you climb up the mountain yourself.”

To those who know her best, the signs of transition are only barely beginning to show. Sowles, for one, admitted to not having had a long talk about the future with Kearney yet.

“I wanted her to retire and relax, but I saw her in Deer Valley for about 15 minutes after she finished shooting (a film) with Warren Miller,” Sowles said. “She just had this big sigh, like, ‘I’m really retiring.’ ”

Since everything worked out for the best in her competitive career, Kearney retains faith that the next phase of her life will pan out well, too.

“I remind myself, even when it comes to skiing, the path was laid out for me, but I learned to love it and learned to excel at it,” Kearney said. “It wasn’t love at first ski. Yes, I’ve always loved moguls, but becoming good at mogul skiing was a journey, and it took years before I got to the top of my sport. My next thing, I imagine, will be something of a similar path.”

Life began for Hannah Kearney on Tuesday. Her borrowed (from her boyfriend) Toyota Tacoma pickup truck packed, Finn in the passenger seat, the 10-time FIS women’s moguls and overall freestyle skiing champion tanked up and turned west, prepared for a three-day drive across the country to her soon-to-be home in Utah.

What comes next will be new. And it will be welcomed.

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

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