KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA - Just about everything was against Jan Hudec.
His age. His tattered knees. The slipped disc in his back. The history of Canadian alpine skiing at the Olympic Games. The fact that two days ago he wasn’t walking without pain, let alone certain he would muster up something that would enable him to ski the challenging Super-G course at Rosa Khutor.
And there he was Sunday on the podium at the Winter Olympics, with the least likely of Canadian stories to tell, and a bronze medal for the ages.
Not all Olympic medals are ever created equal. But by the nature of the sport, the event, the depth of field, the quality of competition, an alpine ski medal has always been one of the signature medals of the Olympics, a medal so difficult that a skiing nation like Canada had just two of 55 in previous Olympic Games.
And for Hudec to have bronze now, the first Canadian man to ever win a Super-G medal, the first Canadian in 20 years to win an alpine medal and only the third Canadian man in history, considering all his litany of injuries and pain and knees that have been operated on seven times, four times having them reconstructed, puts him on the podium for best Olympic moment.
Or certainly the least likely.
“In the athletes village they are offering free MRIs,” Hudec said just hours after tying the legendary Bode Miller for bronze. “I didn’t have the time to get one. I was always in therapy.”
He is always in therapy. In January, while working out in Calgary, he put out his back and never mind making the Olympics: He couldn’t get out of bed.
At the end of last ski season, or at least when his season prematurely ended, he couldn’t walk up stairs. “Everything hurt.”
The year before that, he didn’t have the strength to bend down and pick up his son. “That was disheartening. Can you imagine not being able to pick up your son and play with him?”
And it’s no surprise that he was partially in shock post-race, stunned by his good fortune and great finish, not ready yet to let loose and celebrate.
The CBC wanted to interview him for obvious reasons, winning the first of two Canadian medals on the day, but they told him he didn’t look “excited enough.
“They were waiting for that excited moment,” he said. “I didn’t look like I was going to give it to them. So they were stalling.” Until finally, they had no choice.
The excited moment came several hours later, when he completely realized what he had accomplished under all but impossible and improbable circumstances. “It’s a story of perseverance and patience and humility and the silver lining is bronze,” said Hudec, writing his own words. The medal reminded me of one won by diver Annie Pelletier in Atlanta in 1996. She held up the bronze and said: “Does it look like gold to you? It looks like gold to me.”
“Each time I had a surgery, it was a huge blow mentally to what I was trying to accomplish,” said Hudec, whose parents escaped from the former Czechoslovakia in a homemade raft when he was an infant, settling in Germany before coming to Canada five years later. “But each time it happened, I learned such valuable lessons.”
He learned about himself. He learned how talented he was and occasionally how lazy he was. He learned with each rehab that he needed to outwork his competitors just to stay even. And even then, there was setback after setback.
He wanted to ski Wengen and Kitzbuhel this year and wasn’t healthy enough for either. He basically missed the 2011 season and part of the 2010 season after his seventh knee surgery. In between there were surgeries on his hand, thumb and broken arms. If he knows exactly how many operations he has had, he’s not saying.
And when he finished badly in the downhill earlier in the week, while saying he thought he contend in the Super-G, his body was saying something else. “Up to two days ago, I didn’t think I’d be ready to race. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into it. This morning I felt good, I made a conscious choice to have the confidence to go down the mountain.”
It’s one thing to believe. It’s another to do it against the best in the world. His time of 118.67 was .53 seconds behind gold-medal winner Kjetil Jansrud of Norway. All those surgeries, all that recovery, all that angst and half a second is the difference between gold, bronze and being off the podium completely.
“For him to have this moment, knowing all he’s been through, makes me so proud of him,” said Kerrin-Lee Gartner, the last Canadian to win alpine gold at the Olympics, in 1992.
“I think he defines toughness. And I totally admire his perseverance. He’s skiing with a damaged body, really with no knees at all. Just an incredible, incredible performance. The best of the Olympics.”
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