By Michael Rosenberg
February 08, 2014

SOCHI -- Hannah Kearney finished third in the world and was devastated.  Maxime Dufour-Lapointe finished third in her family and cried tears of joy. It was a strange night on the moguls hill in the Caucasus mountains outside of Sochi, unfathomable to one family and unbearable for another.

Dufour-Lapointe’s sisters, Justine and Chloe, won gold and silver. Their parents could not believe it. Neither could Kearney, the star from Vermont, who won the bronze medal and sounded like she might toss it in the Black Sea. And as the Dufour-Lapointes and Kearney answered questions in the mixed zone, a larger one hung in the air:

How much should an athlete want to win?

Sometimes you hear athletes say they won because they “wanted it more,” but Kearney probably wanted this more than anybody.  Winning could have meant some endorsements and the clear, hard-to-beat title of best moguls skier ever. But she does not seem motivated by endorsement money, and gold, for her, was not just about beating the field. It was about matching her gold-medal performance in 2010 in Vancouver. That is how she sees herself: as a gold medalist. Entering the race, she did not seem to consider any other result.

In a role reversal that you see sometimes at the Olympics, reporters tried to tell an athlete that winning was not everything. Congrats on the bronze, more than one told Kearney. The bronze is still impressive --

“But it’s very difficult coming off of a gold,” Kearney said. “From the top, there is nowhere to go, but stay there or fall. And today I fell -- only two places, but enough that it still feels like a disappointment to me.”

Still, bronze is quite an accomplishment --

“But it’s really hard,” Kearney said. “No one in life wants the best part of their career to be behind them. Unfortunately, that’s what it feels like right now, is I was at my best in my past.”

The tears kept dripping. Who was the media to console her, anyway? Most of us show up to these events once every four years. We don’t see the work.

It would have been nice for Kearney to clap her hands for the Dufour-Lapointes and move on, but on this night, nice was too much to ask. We’ll settle for honesty. Kearney was sick at the idea of hearing the Canadian national anthem. And when she was asked about competing against the Dufour-Lapointes the last few years, she said: “Mostly it felt like I was just able to beat them most of the time, to be honest, yeah, it happened a couple of times when they beat me. But I [beat] myself today.”

And this brings us to Maxime Dufour-Lapointe’s tears of joy. Yes, of course, she was happy her sisters won. The Dufour-Lapointes are very close; they are inseparable at events. But there was something more here. Maxine, the oldest sister, had medal hopes herself. She was happy before her sisters went gold-silver. She had done her best. It was not perfect. She knew that. But she was not cautious or foolish. It was her best effort, and that was enough for her.

“I am so proud of myself and everything I accomplished just to be here,” Maxime said.

Someday, Kearney may wonder if she would have won gold this week if she cared a little less. In 2006 in Turin, nerves got to her and she never contended. In 2010 in Vancouver, she conquered the nerves and won gold. In 2014 … well, when you have convinced yourself that gold is the only medal, how can you find competitive peace?

“I didn’t feel nervous, but I’m sure the nerves create a physical reaction and make you stiffer,” said Kearney. “I just wasn’t at my relaxed best.”

Maybe that is why she wobbled on a turn near the top of her final run. And maybe the Canadians didn’t wobble because, even though all three sisters made the Olympics, Justine said this kind of success was never really the goal.

“Winning medals together?” she said. “I don’t think we ever talked about that.”

She said at the flower ceremony, “Holding the hand of Chloe meant that I wasn’t alone. I was there and I couldn’t imagine I was stepping up on the first step of the podium. I was in shock, and I saw Chloe and I felt calm. And I took [her] hand and … ‘You know what, Chloe? We will love that moment together. And it will feel like home.’”

When Justine finished her interviews, a Canadian official told her the Prime Minister wanted to talk to her. Her parents were already celebrating with the kind of glee that would be embarrassing if they were your parents but is adorable when they are somebody else’s.

Mom Johane: “I want to see my babies!”

Dad Yves: “They’re so cute! They’re so cute!”

Hannah Kearney: “I really gave it away, is what I felt like.”

Kearney said “the only positive” was that she did not get too cautious. She did try.  She said she was proud to be part of the United States medal count, but then she wasn’t even sure about that.

“Right?” she asked. “They are medals, it’s not gold medals?

Yes, the medal count includes all medals. A bronze medal does impress other people, Hannah. I hope that someday, it even impresses you.

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