KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Hannah Kearney answered a question about her readiness to defend the Olympic women's moguls gold medal with a question of her own.
"Have you seen my thighs?"
And no, she wasn't kidding.
Hannah Kearney of Norwich, Vt. competes during the freestyle World Cup moguls event Jan. 11 in Park City, Utah. She came in first place.
(AP Photo — Rick Bowmer)
The U.S. freestyle skiing star who trains in Lake Placid is simply built for her sport, built to fight for the top spot on the Olympic podium, the perch that she occupied four years ago and the one she plans to be in again on Saturday when the women's moguls medals are awarded at the Sochi Games.
As the reigning Olympic and world champion, Kearney is the obvious favorite.
"I know that everyone wants to beat me even more and I know there's no place to go from the top but to fall or to stay there," Kearney said. "It's easier to be the underdog. There's like scientific research about that. So I use that as motivation. 'OK, I'm not the underdog.' If you're wearing the No. 1 bib and you're the Olympic gold medalist, no matter what happens on that day you're never going to be the underdog, so it changes your mentality a little bit."
Since her Olympic debut eight years ago, more than her mentality has changed.
Physically, Kearney barely recognizes the person she was in 2006, hence the quip about if anyone has noticed the aforementioned thighs. She's become one of the faces of her sport, plus has seen her goals evolve and get reset on occasion as her list of accomplishments grows.
One other method of illustrating how much has changed in her life since 2006? Back then, hard as it might seem to believe nowadays, Kearney didn't even own a cell phone.
"Eight years is a very significant portion of my life," said Kearney, 27. "So of course, I've changed a lot. You're bound to grow up in that time traveling the world and competing."
What hasn't changed is her desire to win, especially now.
She says this is her final Olympics, so there's an obvious sense of urgency. She's already won once on the course that will be used for the Sochi Games, though conditions and even the profile of the slope will not be what she experienced a year ago. Kearney and her U.S. teammates saw the Olympic course for the first time Sunday, the general consensus being that it should treat the Americans fairly well.
Teammate Eliza Outtrim was second in that women's test event on the Sochi Olympic course last year, while Heather McPhie was fourth - a tiebreaker that went the wrong way for the Americans was the only thing preventing a sweep that day. So clearly, the Americans have at least the benefit of having some good memories of the Olympic venue.
"Being here, I just feel relaxed and really, really excited to ski," Outtrim said.
The format for the Olympic competition has changed to one that's considered to be more physically taxing, which Kearney said will benefit the Americans, whose level of fitness she raved about on Monday.
Her history shows that she can win anywhere, though. And when the spotlight is brightest, like it will be this weekend, Kearney expects even more from herself than usual.
"Past success on the venue sort of means everything and absolutely nothing," Kearney said. "It means everything because you're like, 'All right, I've won on this course, I'm definitely going to win again.'
"Then again, it means nothing. The course is not very similar to how it was last year."
Even the pitch has changed because they have more snow. It will hold up differently. Plus, it's the Olympic Games. There was absolutely nothing on the line, technically, a year ago. And now everything, supposedly, is on the line."