Telluride’s Hagen Kearney charged into World Cup snowboarding history in Austria this week.
Kearney, a longtime rider with the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club, reached the pinnacle of snowboard cross racing when he won the opening World Cup event of the season in Montafon, Austria.
His perseverant path to the top of the podium included a dramatic re-run in the final heat in the elimination-style, side-by-side snowboard racing format.
“Crossing … the finish line was a blur, but I do remember thinking, ‘Finally,’” Kearney said of his first World Cup victory. “It really was a relief to know what it’s like to win a World Cup … it felt like every step along the way had its purpose.”
Just back from Europe and training with the U.S. Team in Park City, Utah, Kearney reflected on his breakthrough victory and his riding roots in Telluride in a telephone interview with The Daily Planet.
“I had two good, solid weeks of training. I felt really confident in my riding,” the 25-year-old said of his preparation for the snowboard cross World Cup opener in Montafon.
He said he had fond memories of the Austrian resort, where he had scored his first top-10 finish four years ago when he first represented the United States on the World Cup tour.
“I’ve always gotten good training before (events at) Montafon,” Kearney said, adding that this year the U.S. riders trained on a glacier at high elevation along with other boarder cross competitors.
And in a sport where snowboarders race shoulder-to-shoulder in a roller-derby style joust to the finish, competition training is essential, Kearney said.
“Training … against the competition is the best thing,” said Kearney, who blitzed through the early elimination rounds in Montafon as the top finishers in each four-rider heat advanced.
A testy semifinal sent Kearney against a field of three Italian riders, known for their physical racing style.
“I definitely gave it a little extra (to get through to the final heat),” Kearney told The Daily Planet.
That’s when the World Cup fireworks ignited.
A tumultuous final round featured a balky start and then a chain-reaction crash near the finish on the serpentine course that included jumps, banked sections and rollers.
Two riders, both Australians, tumbled down.
Kearney avoided the mayhem but was slowed, eventually sliding across behind the Italian finalist.
“I thought I’d gotten second place,” Kearney said, excited about his first World Cup podium finish.
But meanwhile, a protest concerning a gate malfunction at the start was upheld and in a unique ruling, the snowboarders were sent back to the top of the course for a championship re-run.
While some of the finalists grumbled about the additional run, Kearney relished the opportunity.
“We went back to the top … and this time I was able to win,” he said after a change in line. “The hole shot (start) was the key. And I took a tighter line … setting up the turns earlier.”
His fast start and tight line generated a lead on the re-run.
“Then, it was blocking,” he said.
Seconds later, the snowboarder who cut his teeth and sharpened his edges growing up on the steep slopes of Telluride, was swarmed by his U.S. teammates and lofted into the air in true Euro championship fashion.
Italian snowboard cross standout Omar Visitin finished second. Alex Pullin of Australia won bronze.
Crossing in fourth was fellow Aussie Jarryd Hughes, the gold medalist in boarder cross at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen.
Kearney, without hesitation, said his World Cup win traces directly to his days as a youngster snowboarding with younger brother Harry, himself an accomplished backcountry rider now based out of Mount Baker, Wash.
“My brother and I chased skiers at Telluride. Skiers are fast. It’s not easy on a snowboard to go (fast) … on the bumps,” Kearney said.
But Hagen and Harry were out there — a lot.
“We always rode together growing up. We’ve always been pushing each other,” Kearney said. “We feed off each other.”
They shared a passion for snowboards that was first shared on skateboards.
“When we moved to Telluride, all we wanted to do was snowboard,” Kearney said. “We had been skateboarding, so it was natural to go to snowboarding.”
The competition phases soon followed.
“I was more into freestyle, actually,” Hagen Kearney said of his formative years on a snowboard. He worked on the halfpipe, and he worked on the jumps and terrain-park features.
“I really wanted to be a professional in slopestyle,” he said, soon realizing “it wasn’t clicking for me.”
Still, the two Kearney brothers were invited to work out with the U.S. Snowboard Team. Hagen Kearney gravitated toward snowboard cross — a combination of riding and racing.
With immediate success, Kearney had a realization: “Maybe cross is a cool way I can make something out of this passion for snowboarding.”
Relying on his roots in skateboarding, Kearney applied the same principles of physics to his snowboard racing.
“My coaches have told me it’s a unique thing for me … I’ve been skating longer than I’ve been snowboarding,” said Kearney, pointing to the techniques of generating speed common to both boards. “There’s a synchronicity with skateboarding.”
The Kearney family will celebrate that synchronicity, along with Hagen’s World Cup victory, at a holiday family reunion this week in the Telluride area.
Richard and Barbie Kearney moved to Telluride when their two young boys were just 2 and 4.
With an orientation toward winter sports, the family had moved from northwest Pennsylvania where skiing was a test of will with icy, cold conditions and flat light.
“Our first year in Colorado … we said this is incredible,” Richard Kearney said. “With … our predisposition to winter sports, here you feel like you’re in the right place.”
His wife, he said, grew up skiing.
“Barbie was a much better skier than I was,” he said, adding that snowboarding was a natural fit for the skateboarding boys.
“Hagen’s a really good skateboarder. He uses it as cross training,” Richard Kearney said.
“Both the boys grew up on snowboards. They were out there all the time.”
They leapfrogged through the programs of the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club.
“They (Kearney brothers) were being coached and trained by a young man named Jason Troth,” Richard Kearney said. “He was very instrumental in their development as young riders.”
He said Troth, also a Telluride tai chi instructor, had the uncanny ability to get the boys to become mentally aware of their snowboarding challenges and not just focus on the physical.
Hagen eventually gravitated to cross racing.
“Harry’s carving his own path,” Richard Kearney said of the 23-year-old Harry Kearney, who has several top regional boarder cross finishes to his credit as well.
“They’re following their passion, and we are happy they are,” Richard said. “Growing up in Telluride his given them such a perspective.”
After the holidays, Hagen Kearney will compete again in late January when the World Cup tour visits Solitude Resort in Utah.
After the holidays, Harry Kearney will head back to Mount Baker to pursue his boarding career.
But first, the two will ride together on the mountain where it all started — Telluride.
“They get so much enjoyment out of riding … every time they go out. We’re so happy for them,” said the proud father. “They love what they are doing. As a parent, what else would you ask for.”