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Olympic gold medalist Hannah Kearney is a skier in transition

U.S. mogulist Hannah Kearney is in transition.

It was 354 days ago that she won a conflicting Olympic gold. Redeeming for Kearney, who tearfully washed out in qualifying as a medal hopeful at the 2006 Olympics. Crushing for Canada, which hoped Jennifer Heil would win the country's first Olympic gold on home soil. Heil settled for silver that night at Cypress Mountain.

Kearney's momentum carried over this year. She's on a five-race World Cup winning streak, a run bettered only by 1992 Olympic champ Donna Weinbrecht in circuit history.

"She's back in Hannah mode," Nick Preston, who's coached her since she was 9, said before this week's Freestyle World Championship at Deer Valley. "Her fitness is second to none out there on the hill. It's probably among the men. ... I feel bad for those other girls."

Kearney nearly won her second world title Wednesday despite missing on her final jump, where she tried to spin 360 degrees while grabbing one of her skis. Kearney merely touched the ski rather than grabbing it, a major deduction, allowing Heil to sneak by her 24.35 to 24.31.

For Kearney, it's still an impressive silver considering she was faster down the course than Heil (speed is 25 percent of the final score; judges' marks on turns and jumps make up 75 percent) and came a few fingers away from hitting a trick she didn't feel confident using at the Olympics.

She also deserves extra credit for success in a post-Olympic year when many star athletes take it easy. Kearney does not. She's an athlete in transition, like a TV series beginning a new season. Last season ended with this cliffhanger, hours after her winning run at the Olympics.

The setting: Vancouver's luxury Pan Pacific Hotel. Kearney was between late-night press interviews and a 4 a.m. Today Show visit on her gold-medal tour.

A nearby flat screen rolled highlights of her triumph on that first night of the Games. A commentator said nobody had ever repeated as Olympic champion in a freestyle skiing event.

"Not yet," she added, hinting at 2014.

Kearney left Vancouver and hoped for the kind of corporate sponsorships that go to gold medalists but learned it doesn't really work that way. She was told that companies star search leading up to the Olympics more than coming out of them.

Kearney wasn't widely known before the Games like some of her U.S. teammates.

"I can't compare myself with Lindsey Vonn," she said.

Vonn's Olympic spoils included an appearance on Law and Order, seen by millions.

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Kearney, meanwhile, did a local commercial for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.

The returns on her gold medal fit her small-town background, coming from Norwich, Vt., population 3,544, which held a victory parade in her honor last February. Dartmouth-Hitchcock signed Kearney for about $5,000 per year for four years. She's also received priceless gifts from fans.

"I had people send me perfume, a man sent me a walking stick that he personally carved for me that [he said] took 26 hours to make, a couple letters from prison," she said.

The souvenirs are stacked in her old baby room at her parents' house, now renamed the "Olympic storage room." The medal gets locked in a safety deposit box while she's on the road.

She's grateful for the praise and presents, even if she's not living a life of luxury. That's not really out of the ordinary for freestyle skiers. But the last year has brought a new obstacle.

"My fear is that [skiing] will be my identity for the rest of my life," she said. "As incredible as that was, I want something more."

Kearney applied and was accepted into Dartmouth College. Classes start this spring. She's undeclared, still in transition.

That doesn't spell the end of her skiing. Rather, she needs the sport. Every World Cup win earns a few thousand dollars toward tuition. She's saved up enough to fund one semester, maybe two. Ivy League life costs about $45,000 a year, she estimated.

Struggling to cover college costs is almost inherent these days. You just wouldn't expect it to be tough for an Olympic champion.

"It's shockingly overwhelming," said Kearney, who's writing proposals for financial aid grants. "Those costs are not affordable. I'm doing everything I can."

She means it.

For one promotional appearance, Dartmouth-Hitchcock had her dress up as Wonder Woman at a half marathon.

"The cape, the strapless dress with the blue-star skirt, the knee-high boots," she said.

Kearney recreated the costume for Halloween, cloaking it with her grandmother's sweater and jeans.

She called it, "Wonder Woman in transition."