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Behind the Gold: A different kind of athlete

Tom Kelly, U.S. Ski Team
Hagen Kearney celebrates after winning a snowboard cross World Cup event.
U.S. Ski Team

It takes a different kind of athlete to race snowboardcross. Telluride’s Hagen Kearney, well, he’s a different kind of athlete. Today, he’s a World Cup winner.

Snowboardcross is a hardscrabble contact sport pitting four riders against each other at high speed down a race course that pitches and winds through banked turns and soaring jumps. It made its Olympic debut in 2006 with American Seth Wescott taking gold. It’s a sport won on strategy and finesse, amidst the chaos of bumping elbows roller derby-style.

Take one look at Kearney and the first thing that comes to mind is motorcycle dude, heavy metal rock star or skateboarder. All are correct. With shoulder-length hair flowing in the wind, he’s equally at home atop the deck of a skateboard or his 1972 Shovelhead chopper.

So, what’s a guy from Florida like Kearney doing on a snowboard? Since a trip to Telluride as a 9-year-old, it’s been all about snow. That vacation turned into a family move. Soon his passion for snowboarding blossomed, helped along with his engagement with the International Snowboard Training Center in Summit County. He tried it all — halfpipe, slopestyle, SBX.

Then came his first big break — a start in the World Cup SBX at his home resort of Telluride in December 2011. He didn’t make the show, finishing 46th. But two months later, he was 11th in Quebec and wrapped up the season with a fifth in Valmalenco — until last Friday, his career best.

In last week’s season opener in Montafon, Austria, he qualified 16th. But once in the heats, it was bang-bang-bang — three wins and into the finals.

Suddenly, he was in the finals with a perfect three-win leadup. Out of the gate, he took control with a strong start. Right on his heels was Italian Omir Visintin. They duked it out over the rollers and vaulting off the jumps. In the hard-banked turn 3, near the midway mark, Hagen got a touch wide and left an opening for Visintin.

As he made the pass, Visintin clipped Hagen’s board, and the American went down — suddenly popping back up Bode Miller style and continuing unphased down the course, crossing the line second for a career first podium.

But wait, there’s more. Suddenly the riders were told to head back up. The start gate for Australian Alex Pullin had opened late. The finals were being re-run.

“I know nobody really wanted to go back up there and race again,” laughed Kearney. “So I figured I had to have the edge on everybody. I said, ‘hey, I’ll do this s* again!’”

Sport is about athletic toughness — the physical prowess to execute on the snow. It’s about conditioning and strength — a powerful core to withstand the rigors of such a punishing contact sport.

But it’s also about mental toughness. And it’s about team.

The U.S. snowboardcross team is a gritty bunch of athletes. They’re a family, sharing in success and commiserating each other in failure.

“When Hagen got to the bottom of the first finals he was completely mentally and physically gassed,” said Coach Jeff Archibald, a former elite rider himself. “When the rerun was announced, his teammates rallied around him and helped him refocus. By the time he got back to the top he was focused and ready to rip.

As the gates swung open, Hagen got the hole shot once again to take the lead. First Pullin took a shot, but Hagen held him off. Through turn 3, Hagen rode a much more strategic line to hold off the field once again. Down over the rollers and dropping into the finish, Visintin made one more charge, but Kearney was undaunted.

“Hagen has put in so much work over the past three years believing he could do what he did,” Archibald said. “Seeing all that work pay off was extremely satisfying. It’s mind-boggling to think of the hundreds of hours of training that went into that one performance.”

After crossing the line, Kearney bee-lined it to the finish corral fence. His teammates — every last one of them — had already sprung out to the finish to greet him. He was hoisted onto their shoulders and body surfed across the crowd.

On the podium there were cheers, there was champagne — lots of champagne — and there were tears.

“As a coach, it was amazing to see the pride and support from his teammates,” said Archibald.

“I felt the heat, and that was it,” said Hagen of his winning run. “I can’t believe it. I just won — it’s insane.”

And the sport of snowboardcross may never be quite the same.

Behind the Gold is a weekly column written by Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.


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