Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Leaving life of rehab behind

Hudec tops podium for first time in 4 years

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CHAMONIX, France -- Through six knee surgeries and debilitating back problems, Jan Hudec never lost faith.

Having struggled so long during a career that reads like a long orthopedic report, the 30-year-old from Calgary won a World Cup downhill on a great day for Canadian skiing.

Teammates Erik Guay finished third and Ben Thomsen was fifth as part of the Maple Leaf surge on a piercingly cold day when temperatures sank to - 26 C.

Hudec, whose career has been blighted by knee injuries and operations, won for the first time in more than four years. He thumped his chest with his fist when he realized his long wait had ended.

"It's amazing, living a life of mostly rehab can get tedious after awhile, and really frustrating and it's just such a weight off my shoulders," Hudec said. "I never stopped believing I could be back, I just had no idea how long it would take or when it would happen."

Hudec finished in two minutes 3.25 seconds, followed by Austria's Romed Baumann in 2:03.78. Guay, the reigning world downhill champion from Mont-Tremblant, Que., was 0.63 seconds behind the winner.

Thomsen, from Invermere, B.C., snuck into fifth despite being the 50th skier to go down, adding to Canada's most successful day of men's ski racing since 1994 when Edi Podivinski and Cary Mullen finished 1-2.

"For us to have a race like this with three guys in the top five, I think we blew everybody out of the water and I think everyone that was up on the hill was either impressed or stoked for us -- some both," Hudec said. "It's incredible."

Switzerland's Beat Feuz was fourth, with Austria's Klaus Kroell sixth and Switzerland's Didier Cuche seventh.

This was Hudec's second World Cup victory and first since his downhill triumph at Lake Louise, Alta., in November 2007. Hudec had started that year promisingly with a silver medal at the worlds in Are, Sweden, and ended it with a third-place finish in a World Cup downhill at Bormio, Italy, a month later.

Then his career plummeted -- he tore ligaments in his right knee and needed repeated surgery. His body was so bashed up he had full reconstructive surgery on his knees four times, three times on his right and once on his left. What's more, he had two further knee operations and twice severely injured his back.

"Physio has obviously been a huge part of my life, almost a bigger part of my life than skiing," Hudec said. "I herniated a disc in my back, first time 10 years ago and then it was OK for about 10 years, and then two years ago -- at the beginning of last season -- it happened again.

"Basically it was just patching things together," he added. "I didn't ski all summer because of my back."

Hudec never once considered retiring.

"The love of the sport, the passion in my heart, the faith that I knew I could come out on top at some point," Hudec said, on why he opted to keep skiing. "Just knowing that you can do it without having the tangible evidence to help you with that... I just had to keep going and I knew eventually it would happen."

Canadian coach Paul Kristofic has been through the highs and lows with Hudec.

"His recoveries are a challenge, but this is one of the guys who has the best natural talent and incredible skill to carry speed on the skis, and he's determined," Kristofic said. "It's always special when you see a guy who's struggled with injury and other things to succeed and really triumph on a day like today."

Hudec, who said he woke up Saturday morning feeling the best he has in 10 or 12 years, had been close in Friday's downhill race, holding the leading time early on before slipping to sixth place.

He was trailing Baumann on Saturday until he reached the mid-section and then started shaving huge chunks off the Austrian's time.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2012 B12

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