Jan Hudec has no idea who he was watching or even why.
But standing on the hill at Nakiska almost 22 years ago during Calgary’s Winter Olympics the then six-year-old had his life changed forever.
“When I saw those guys fly by me from then on there was never any doubt in my mind it’s what I wanted to do,” said the Calgarian on the eve of the World Cup speed season opening in Lake Louise tomorrow.
“We were by a jump and I couldn’t believe how far they were flying – that’s burned into the back of my mind. Sometimes I have to kick myself to remind me I’m doing that now. I don’t know if that’s why I’m here but it makes it that much more special and familiar to be a couple months away from competing at an Olympics in my own country.
"It’ll probably feel like I’ve been there before.”
Having fled communist Czechoslovakia in a leaky boat so their children could one day pursue whatever dreams they had, Hudec’s parents were hoping Olympic exposure would rub off. After all, weeks earlier the Hudecs ran alongside Olympic torchbearers in Red Deer where they held up makeshift candles affixed with red cups around them.
“That’s the first time I realized the Olympics were really special,” said Hudec, now 28.
“I remember seeing it and know that’s where my life was heading. It inspired me to go for it.”
And while names like Alberto Tomba and Marc Girardelli meant nothing to him at the time, the afternoon stirred an Olympic passion inside of him that has seen the resilient Calgary resident fight back from six knee surgeries to pursue a spot in Whistler – his latest coming at last year’s World Championships where he tore his left knee for the first time.
“If you would have told me seven years ago that I’d have six knee surgeries and still be racing I’d say ‘are you kidding me – that’s masochistic,’” laughed Hudec before adding a kicker.
“I’m that dumb?”
No, that passionate.
Following up a breakthrough silver medal at the 2007 World Championships with a downhill win at Lake Louise nine months later, Hudec has since spent most of his time rehabbing, which is what he did all summer.
“The only thing bugging me is my old (right) knee (the one that was operated on five times),” reports Hudec, the biggest character in an entertaining cast of Canadian Cowboys.
“The left knee has been wicked. Awesome.”
So much so he figures he has as good a chance as anyone to shine on the opening day of the Olympics when he hopes to become the first Canadian to win gold on home soil.
In fact, CTV made a commercial on him based around that possibility called “Believe.” However, following his most recent knee tear they apparently stopped believing, pulling the ad from its rotation.
It infuriated Hudec, but little to dampen his drive.
“I HAVE to believe,” said Hudec, careful like most skiers not to put the Olympics too far ahead of the previous two months of World Cup events.
“Medaling at the Olympics is definitely one goal but at this point I’m setting goals daily.”
Rekindling memories of the ‘88 Games by training for a week on the Nakiska run he stood alongside as an impressionable young child, Hudec says he plans on competing for years, regardless of his Olympic results.
“At the end of the day that’s what I’m good at and I still feel I can win,” said Hudec.
“As long as my body holds up.”
Not to mention his spirit, born hillside decades earlier.