Updated: February 9, 2014 at 8:27 pm
SOCHI, Russia - It was an unsettling scene. Hannah Kearney had just claimed a bronze medal, and bronze medalists are supposed to act as if they are at least a little bit happy.
Kearney, a moguls world superstar, was having none of it. She wept Saturday night a few minutes after finishing third. She kept talking about the day in 2010 when she won gold at the Vancouver Games. She had traveled to Russia with a clear goal, gold, and she would settle for nothing short. One journalist even wondered if she might toss her bronze medal into the Black Sea.
Her reaction was jolting. She would not be consoled.
Let me explain her pain:
Kearney understands how Americans view nearly all of the sports involved in the Olympics. She's been a dominant force in international mogul competition since 2005, but her fellow Americans only pay attention when she competes on the world stage that is the Olympics.
This explains why she was crying. This explains why she was so desperately sad. She's 27 and many moguls victories are likely in her future.
But she'll almost certainly never win another gold on the world's grandest stage. She'll be 31 when the Games roll around in 2018, and in her sport 30 is ancient.
"Nobody in life wants the best part of their career to be behind them and that's how it feels right now," Kearney said between sniffles.
Much of the draw of the Olympics comes from the realization of its sheer immensity. Athletes in most Olympic sports can gather medals and respect from fellow competitors and a decent living in the years between the Games, but the real exposure and the real money and the real satisfaction can be found only once every four years.
Ever hear of Eulace Peacock? I didn't think so. At the 1936 Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens became one of the world's most famous men when he sprinted and leaped to four medals while the Nazi dictator, radical racist and immensely despicable human being Adolf Hitler cringed. Owens became a lingering American hero.
Peacock consistently defeated Owens in sprints and long jumps in the months leading up to the Berlin Games, but he suffered a torn hamstring that left him unable to travel to Berlin. Owens ranks alongside Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan on the list of American sports heroes. Peacock spent most of his life in obscurity, operating a liquor store and walking around on the leg that had betrayed him.
Peacock never got a second chance.
The pressure has to be immense. Kearney said she didn't think she was tense, but admitted she couldn't be sure all the expectations failed to shake her. She wanted a gold, or nothing at all, and those tears were tough to watch.
Bode Miller declined to cry Sunday at the bottom of his mountain, but he must have known he had failed to seize one of his final chances to let the world see him at his best. Miller thrives when he skis in the blazing sunlight, and he roared to magnificent training run performances last week in preparation for downhill competition. It's been sunny in Sochi. It's been Bode weather.
But Sunday was cloudy, and the dim skies made it difficult for Miller to see all the bumps on the course. He had been the clear favorite, but the conditions leveled the competition. He started strong but lost his groove midway through his run.
He finished eighth.
He refused to indulge in emotion or criticize his performance. Kearney was openly devastated. Miller chose a hopeful approach.
"I've got a lot more races ahead," Miller said.
But only a precious few with the whole world watching.