Hannah Kearney competes in the Ladies' Moguls qualifications Thursday… (Cameron Spencer / Getty…)
SOCHI, RUSSIA — It's hard to imagine Hannah Kearney being nervous about a moguls competition.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist has dominated the freestyle sport for four years, winning 27 of 37 World Cup events and maintaining a tight grasp on her No. 1 ranking.
Yet there she was Thursday morning, feeling uneasy about the qualification round later that evening.
"I woke up and felt disgustingly nervous and kind of off my game. It all disappeared as soon as I got to the top of the moguls course," Kearney said. "This, I'm assuming, is the most nervous I will be during the entire competition. I always ski better after I get the first run out of the way."
Kearney kept the nerves at bay during the qualification round at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, where she finished first and easily advanced to Saturday's final.
Posting a score of 23.05, the Vermont native landed well ahead of Canadian rivals Chloe Dufour-Lapointe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe.
The third Dufour-Lapointe sister, Maxime, finished eighth, meaning all three siblings will move on to the finals.
"It felt good," Kearney said. "The course is challenging. It's really deep, but I'm a taller athlete so it really helped me. There is certainly room for improvement with my jumps, but we've got three more runs so I need something to work on."
Kearney, 27, is attempting to become the first freestyle skier to win back-to-back Olympic gold, and she knows how daunting the task can be.
She was favored to win gold in 2006, but she stumbled on her first landing in the qualifying round and did not advance to the finals at Turin, Italy.
After Thursday's race, she said memories of that disappointing competition popped into her mind this week.
"Oddly, in training a couple of days ago I was hitting the same kicking-out problem on the third bump that had caused me to mess up at Torino and I thought, 'Oh, boy, we don't need this problem again,' " she said. "I was like, 'OK, relax. Absorb the moguls and just ski.' Up there [Thursday] I just soaked in the beautiful Alpine glow and the crowd and thought, 'There's nothing I can do now.' "
Though Kearney has won three events on the World Cup circuit this season, she has also lost three competitions to the Dufour-Lapointe sisters and has made herself seem beatable for the first time in years.
Typical of her laid-back style, Kearney shrugs off suggestions that her competitors have closed the gap on her.
"If it's interpreted that I'm feeling more pressure from the other girls this year, that's suggesting that everyone else is getting better and I'm not," she said. "And I don't think that's the case."
Indeed, her competitors say that Kearney's ability to keep getting better serves as terrific inspiration in their own training.
"Seeing Hannah doing well week after week definitely makes you work hard," U.S. moguls skier Eliza Outtrim said. "She's had so much success and so much consistency. She's a really great teammate and a good friend, so we are always trying to catch up with her and hopefully this week we can."
Outtrim finished fourth in the qualifying round Thursday, giving her an automatic berth in the finals. She is competing in her first Olympics after failing to make the team in 2010, a disappointment that cost her funding and forced her to return to the NorAm tour for developmental skiers.
"It was very surreal," Outtrim said of Thursday's run. "Even just now, I had to pinch myself and tell myself I'm at the Olympics. It's a very cool environment. When standing at the top of the course I was a little nervous to get that first run over with, so I'm really glad that's over."
U.S. skier Heather McPhie finished 14th and could still make the finals in a second qualification round scheduled for Saturday.
American teammate Heidi Kloser, ranked fourth in the world, did not compete after crashing and injuring her knee during a training run.