After nearly two years of rehabilitation John Kucera has received medical clearance to resume World Cup ski racing following a devastating fall which resulted in a badly broken leg.
Doctors say the leg has healed. The challenge Kucera now faces is convincing his brain to again start taking the risks that once made him one of the world's best downhill skiers.
"Physically I'm good to go," the former world downhill champion said via telephone from Toronto on Wednesday. "It's the mental side of things that takes more time to come around.
"To take those risks. To put myself on the line and to be in the right head space."
Kucera has broken the tibia in his left leg twice. The first time was during a 2009 downhill race at Lake Louise, Alta. He broke the same bone again in February during a training fall at Aspen, Colo.
Since then, Kucera's recovery as gone as planned. His goal is to race again at the first World Cup downhill of the season at Lake Louise on Nov. 26.
"Medically there is no setbacks or anything holding me back in that respect," said the 27-year-old from Calgary. "The only way I wouldn't race is if I feel like I'm not ready to be in a competitive spot when I take the start.
"I'm just working to get some prep-period time in. If I'm skiing well enough, if I am skiing strong, we'll take the start. If not, we will just go week to week until I feel like I'm ready to compete."
Taking calculated risks
The hours of rehab have healed and strengthened Kucera's leg. What remains now is wrapping his head around taking the calculated risks a skier needs to when searching for the fraction of a second that can win a race.
"To be really competitive, to ski fast in a sport as dangerous as we do — and after everything I have been through — it's the mental side of things that takes time to come around," said Kucera. "To take those risks.
"The challenge is when I get into unsure situations, blind gates, jumps, rough courses. The only way I get more confidence in those situations is to put myself in those situations more and more and grow comfortable with them."
Kucera finds himself in a catch-22, however. To test his ability to recover from dangerous situations he has to put himself in spots he doesn't want to be in.
"It's a double-edged sword," he laughed. "What I try to do is put myself in uncomfortable situations.
"Before, if I got into an unbalanced position or did something that was a little bit risky, I had full confidence in my leg and ability. When you are coming back from injury you start testing these things a little bit. It just takes time."
Kucera was a medal favourite at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics until he crashed at speeds of around 100 kilometres an hour at the 2009 Lake Louise race.
The fall broke his tibia and fibula. The impact was so violent a bone tore through the back of his leg. He underwent surgery to have a rod inserted through the tibia.
Kucera returned to skiing last November. With his recovery progressing he began forerunning for some races but disaster struck when he broke his left tibia again at Aspen.
That fall was caused when a faulty binding released, sending Kucera cartwheeling down the hill.
Kucera has registered three World Cup podium finishes, all in super-giant slalom. He won in 2006 at Lake Louise and was third in Italy that year before finishing second two years later at a race in Alberta.
Kucera also captured the downhill title at the 2009 world championships at Val d'Isere, France.
When he returns, Kucera plans to race downhill, super-G and giant slalom. Of the three, he thinks super-G might be the most mentally taxing.
Downhill racers have several training runs on a course. The first time a racer gets a look at a super-G track is when he launches out of the start gate.
"In super-G the speeds are high," said Kucera. "It's dangerous but you don't have the luxury as an athlete to sample it.
"It has to happen on the first go. That's really where mental strength is a big factor."
Small goals to start
When Kucera was injured he was considered one of the rising stars in World Cup skiing. He knows battling his way back into contention won't be easy.
His goal is to begin with top-30 finishes, which will improve his start position for future races.
"As much as I'd love to come back and be challenging for podiums right away I understand that's not going to be the case," he said. "When I do make my return I'd like to be in a spot where I am competitive and finishing in the points.
"My goal would be, by the end of the year, to finish where I left off in the top-10. If I can show that kind of growth in the season that would give me a lot of confidence and a great starting point for the next season."