Jan Hudec is one of the good guys
Grace, humility mark a man at the tail end of his career
In my business you can’t afford to be caught cheering for anyone.
But after the fact, when one of the good guys whom you’ve known for a long, long time comes through, you can’t help but do a private little celebratory dance.
Jan Hudec is the kind of guy who’s worth the risk.
At 32 years of age he’s at the tail end of his career and he knows it.
Seven reconstructive knee surgeries later it’s a wonder he can still walk, let alone hurtle himself down a super-G course with any hope of being competitive. Oh, and did I mention the bulging disk in his back that flared up just before the Olympics began?
All of that didn’t matter one iota to Hudec on the last day of speed racing in the skiing events at Sochi 2014. He threw caution to the wind and nailed his run at Rosa Khutor to provide Canada with its first alpine medal at the Olympics in two decades. It was a third-place tie with American Bode Miller but it was a bronze medal every bit as good as gold.
Ed Podivinsky won downhill bronze for Canada in Lillehammer in 1994. Since then there has been a drought of epic proportion, which is uncharacteristic for a country that has produced the legendary “Crazy Canucks” and a “Tiger” named Nancy Greene.
So to see Hudec finally quench the thirst of a ski-loving country was pretty special. And what made it even more so was the back story that came with his podium breakthrough.
Here was a self-effacing fellow, the son of Czech parents who had escaped a communist regime by sailing a boat across the Adriatic Sea and finding their way to a German refugee camp, where they stayed for four years before resettling in Red Deer, Alta., and ultimately Banff.
He arrived in Russia as the oft-injured and ageing warrior who had known fleeting but sweet success on the World Cup circuit. A scrapper who had proven he could ski with the best on the planet.
This was a guy facing his last, best chance to make an impression doing something he had loved for most of his life.
Jan Hudec wasn’t about to let this magnificent opportunity slip away.
I remember speaking with him in May at the Olympic Excellence Series in Vancouver, which was organized by the Canadian Olympic Committee for its targeted medal hopefuls at the Sochi 2014 Games. Hudec was a late addition because of his long and illustrious history with injury. In other words, I’m not sure the COC thought he had a real chance to deliver.
And so there was no swagger when Hudec came in for his interview and it was characteristic of the dealings I had always had with him.
“I think all athletes have to have some form of humility to make it to the top,” he said that day. “You’re always going to hit walls and really deep valleys to get there. If you have something that you can cling to that’s strong and that’s reinforced time and time again, it gives you a source of real strength to hold onto and to come back from all the crap.”
After he had won his medal, I got a note from a viewer in Calgary named Darcy Verhun who told me a story about Hudec appearing one day to help him dig out from the ravages of the summer flood. Hudec had brought a crowbar and stayed there all day, knee deep in the sewage to come to the aid of a neighbour.
Verhun told Hudec that his effort was much appreciated but that he might better save his strength to take part in the upcoming Olympics. The skier responded by staying until the job was done and left a handwritten message that said, “Never give up.”
And so when he ambled into the studio in his moment of triumph I knew exactly what was coming from Hudec.
“I think this is the people’s medal,” he said. “So many others have helped me to make it happen and I can claim only a bit of it. I’m here by the grace of God.”
That’s when I knew for sure that this medal for Canada was won by one of the good guys.