Mogul Skiier Hannah Kearney Wins First U.S. Gold

The first medals were handed out at the Winter Games in Vancouver. Americans took home four, in women's moguls and men's speedskating. Canada, which has hosted three Olympics but has never won a gold medal on home soil, took a silver. That leaves fans in Vancouver and beyond waiting a bit longer for their big moment.

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GWEN THOMPKINS, host:

The United States has its first gold medal of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and Canada still has none. The first full day of competition yesterday offered the host Canadians several chances to win a first ever gold on their home soil, but a 23-year-old American named Hannah Kearney got in their way.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: In the sport of moguls skiing, competitors bob their way down a steep hill of snow mounds, accompanied by loud rhythmic music. As Canada's Jennifer Heil pushed off at the top of the hill last night, this was her soundtrack.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Jen Heil began her run in pouring rain as the defending Olympic moguls champion. A nation crossed its collective fingers that Heil would finish as a repeat champion and a Canadian hero for the ages. In the two previous Olympic Games it hosted, Canada won a grand total of zero gold medals. The country's $110 million medal winning commitment called Own the Podium ensured the drought would end at the Vancouver Games and what better way to start than the popular, self-effacing moguls demon Jen Heil.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: She did well, landed her jumps off the ramps that twice interrupt the mogul field and finished with arms raised. Then after a nerve-wracking wait while her score was tabulated...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. HANNAH KEARNEY (Moguls Skier, U.S.): I heard the roar of the crowd. I heard Jen's score, and I knew I was going to have to ski the best round of my life.

GOLDMAN: Which Hannah Kearney did. Last one down the hill, she bounced over the moguls with knees glued together. On the bottom jump she performed a stunt called a helicopter, and she came over the finish line Olympic champ. In a scene that fit the nice Canadian stereotype, a fan who moments before bellowed for Heil, applauded Kearney.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman: Good job. Good job.

Unidentified People: USA. USA.

GOLDMAN: For the USA, gold medal number one of these Olympics. For Kearney, can a girl get a little video time?

Ms. KEARNEY: I really want to be a part of an Olympic montage, and I think I earned my right now.

GOLDMAN: Kearney earned it by feeling no pressure, despite being the last to race.

Ms. KEARNEY: I'm pretty sure pressure is just a made up thing. There's no such thing as pressure. I remind myself sometimes that I'm skiing because I love to ski, not skiing for airtime on NBC. I'm not skiing for the fans at the bottom. I'm skiing because this is what I want to be doing.

GOLDMAN: Jen Heil probably would want to ski her final run with a few less gaps, as she called her small mistakes. Despite the gaps, she won a silver medal to go with her 2006 gold. A silver that was her country's first medal of the Games. So, it wasn't gold. Afterwards, Heil didn't sound like a young woman with the weight of a country's expectations on her shoulders.

Ms. JENNIFER HEIL (Moguls Skier, Canada): For me, I really didn't see the difference in the value of what day a medal is won. Canadians can be assured that that gold medal's coming on home soil.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: But medals are starting to add up for the visiting Americans. Short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno won a silver medal last night in the men's 1,500-meter race, thanks in part to two South Korean skaters who wiped out on the final turn. Ohno's medal was the sixth of his career, tying him with speed skating legend Bonnie Blair for most medals won by an American Winter Olympian. Teammate J.R. Celski also used the crash to zip ahead and claim bronze.

With veteran Shannon Bahrke winning bronze in the ladies moguls, that made four for the U.S. Saturday and put America in the early lead in the medals race -not that anyone's counting - but they are.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Vancouver.

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