Hudec the conquerer

Despite near-catastrophic injuries, Jan Hudec came back and won Canada’s first alpine medal in 20 years

A couple of months ago, when his umpteenth comeback was starting to look real, Jan Hudec denied he was possessed by the Olympic dream. It was launch day for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s line of 2014 Winter Games apparel, and the veteran alpine skier was dressed from head to toe in Team Canada gear. “Honestly, for alpine skiers, the Olympics is another race in the season,” he said, unfazed by the dissonance between his words and his attire. “I’m not someone who, you know, has a poster for Sochi on my bedroom wall.”

It seemed like one of those wink-nudge postures athletes assume for sports-psych reasons. But Hudec had learned long ago to mistrust fortune. In 15 years on the World Cup ski circuit, he’d had no fewer than six operations as the result of catastrophic knee injuries that seemed to come just as he was rounding into podium form. And, sure enough, just eight weeks before he was due to board a plane for Sochi, the fates struck again. While doing plyometric jumping exercises in a Calgary weight gym, Hudec herniated a spinal disc and badly strained the muscles in his lower back.

The three days he spent confined to bed now stand as a low point in a career strewn with setbacks. “I couldn’t get up. Even rolling over was agonizing,” he said. “My bathroom is a few feet away, so that helped. But I was at the mercy of family and friends. It was humbling.” All the while, monstrous thoughts passed through his mind: missing the rest of the ski season; not making Sochi; never competing again. If he’d had that poster, he’d have begged someone to rip it down.

It’s all now prelude, of course, to Hudec’s inspirational performance in Sunday’s super G in Sochi, and when the subject of his Olympo-skepticism came up, the skier just smiled. By then, he was awash in the glow of his bronze-medal-winning race, where, in one minute and 18.67 seconds, he had become an avatar of the Canadian spirit—the guy who battled back from injury, buried a lucky loonie in the snow at the finish line and got Canada its first alpine medal in 20 years. You could forgive him if his explanation for minimizing the Games didn’t quite hold up—“I guess I needed to focus on my World Cup races,” he said—because, if you’d been through what he had, you’d have been just as surprised to find yourself wearing an Olympic medal.

The story begins in the former Czechoslovakia, with a family of teachers, intellectuals and generally freethinkers. Predictably, the Hudecs were viewed by the authorities with suspicion and, in early 1980s, Jan Sr. and his wife, Vladi, decided to get out. Jan ordered a sailboat in a kit, building it in secret at his mother’s house and, during a state-approved vacation to Yugoslavia, the couple bundled 10-month-old Jan on board and made a miserable crossing of the Adriatic. They hit shore in northern Italy, and eventually found their way to Germany, where they lived for four years until they received asylum in Canada.

Hudec’s father, a ski instructor, soon found work at a community hill in Red Deer, Alta., and from there, they moved on to Banff, where both parents worked at the Mountain Ski Academy, an international school with an alpine focus. Young Jan was nothing like the kennel-bred elites with whom he plied the slopes. But he had the three ingredients one needs for success in skiing: instruction, access to a hill and desire.

That might explain why, after his brilliant race on Sunday, Hudec said he believed in his heart that skiing was what he was “meant to do.” Because his body has been trying to tell him otherwise for more than a decade. By the time he won his first World Cup race in 2007, he’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee three times; he tore it again for good measure in 2008, and recovered from surgery just in time to tear the ACL in his left leg. Again, Hudec battled back, and made an appearance at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. But it would be three long years before he would stand on a podium—in Chamonix, France, it turned out, where he won the downhill.

That victory lifted spirits throughout Canada’s alpine team. Barrel-chested and blessed with an Alfred E. Neuman tooth gap, Hudec looks out of place among the swells of the alpine circuit, which, naturally, makes him an inspiration to his teammates. But there was a sense, says downhiller Erik Guay, that Hudec had turned a corner. “I could write a novel on him,” says Guay, whose history with Hudec dates back to childhood competitions in Alberta. “You just can’t put anything past him. I’ve seen him down and out in the past, not getting the results he’s wanted, coming back from an injury. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he picks it all up and becomes capable of winning on any given day.”

This time, though, it was hard to imagine him bouncing back. Numbed by cortisone shots and nerve-end blockers, Hudec had gotten back on the circuit just in time for Sochi, sacrificing all-important training runs to keep the pain around his spine at bay. As he pounded down the slushy slopes of Krasnaya Polyana on Sunday, he later admitted, he was in severe discomfort.

But he wasn’t holding back. At the first interval, he was just .22 seconds off the pace set by the eventual winner, Kjetil Jansrud of Norway. The gap widened, but never by much, and when he sailed past his lucky loonie, Hudec was tied with one of the greats of his sport, Bode Miller of the United States. The pair wound up sharing bronze, while American Andrew Weibrecht took silver, arriving .23 seconds ahead of them. How much it all meant could be measured in the pauses Hudec needed in his post-race interviews. When asked how it felt to stand before the world, the name of his family’s adopted country emblazoned on his chest, he struggled to contain his emotions. “Mine is a story of pain and sacrifice and struggle,” he says, “and I guess, in a sense, it reflects my family story. It certainly solidifies everything my parents did in coming to this country to build a better life.”

Not bad, it must be said, for a single race in a jam-packed alpine skiing season and, as he soaked up the glow of the one podium finish that made it all seem worth it, Hudec was forced to admit the obvious: Maybe this Olympics thing isn’t so bad after all.

Maclean's March 3, 2014