WORDS: Megan Michelson
This February, at the base of the Rosa Khutor alpine resort in Krasnaya Polyana, freestyle skiers of all types will be competing side by side for an Olympic medal. In an area dubbed the Rosa Extreme Park, the old school--moguls and aerials--will meet the newschool--halfpipe and slopestyle--all in one giant competition cluster.
Despite the U.S.'s strengths in slope and pipe, it's women's moguls where they might stand the best chance of medaling. In the 2013 World Cup rankings, the U.S. had two of the top three female mogul skiers in the world--most notably, Hannah Kearney, who was ranked first, and Heather McPhie, ranked third. Canadian Justine Dufour-Lapointe was second. Between Kearney and McPhie, the U.S. could cement its position as the world's powerhouse in bumps.
Kearney is the clear favorite, the defending gold medalist from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a hardened competitor from Vermont. McPhie, a former gymnast turned skier from Montana and a two-time national champion, is the one who goes big trying new tricks and either crashes or wins.
At the Vancouver Games four years ago, McPhie qualified third and then fell in the finals, placing a gut-wrenching 18th. She admits that she's choked under pressure in the past and that she's stubborn enough to innovate new tricks almost to a fault. But working with a sports psychologist, she says, has helped.
McPhie threw a back full (a laid-out backflip with a 360) and a D-spin (an off-axis 720) in the same run for the first time at World Championships last winter, something no other woman is doing. "I think the next wave of mogul skiers are going to be doing these tricks more regularly," says McPhie, 29. "I'm excited to be on the forefront of that push."
While McPhie wants to win in Sochi, she has other objectives, too. "My dream for the Olympics is to have the best run of my life," she says. "But don't get me wrong, I want gold."
In 2013, McPhie had her best competition season yet, earning five World Cup podiums, including three golds. But she herself admits that Kearney will be the one to watch in Sochi. "Hannah's very consistent," McPhie says.
Ask Kearney, 27, what she thinks about McPhie and she'll tell you this: "Heather and I push each other. We have different strengths. It's a unique dynamic. We're on a team together, we're like a family, but it's an individual sport."
Kearney overcame an injury last winter, which sidelined her from the first two World Cups, to climb her way to the top of the rankings by season's end. She also won the Sochi Olympic test event last year, which as she says, boosted her confidence but also means nothing at all.
Yet the Sochi Games will be Kearney's last Olympics. She plans on retiring from mogul skiing after this winter to finish school and focus on the rest of her life. She's hoping to go out on top. "Physically, I'm the strongest I've ever been," Kearney says. "And mentally, I feel motivated and super excited for my last Olympics."
But Kearney knows as the defending Olympic gold medalist and the reigning World Cup champion, she's got everything to lose. No matter, she says.
"I've realized that no matter what happens, whether I win gold or I get last place, my life will go on, I will be the same person," Kearney says. "I just want to ski to my potential--that's all I could ask for on the world's biggest stage."