The secret to skiing fast after a catastrophic injury is to lie to yourself says Jan Hudec, a man familiar with that particular deception.
After seven knee surgeries, the Canadian team racer knows how difficult it is to get his race brain back even after his body healed.
"You literally have to trick your mind, trick your body into getting back into that mode where you're ready to look for speed instead of just surviving the course," Hudec said Friday at Lake Louise, Alta.
"Your body naturally goes into defence mode and it's telling you 'Don't go too fast, don't risk here,' and it brings up memories of crashing or whatever else.
"It comes to a point where you almost have to lie to your brain, to your mind and say 'It's going to be OK. It's going to be fine,' which technically isn't a lie in the long run because it is going to be OK. You have to fake it to a certain point until it becomes routine again to be in that mind frame."
It's a strategy that worked for Hudec. The 31-year-old from Calgary won his first World Cup downhill in five years last season in Chamonix, France, and followed that up with a super-G silver in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
"I got to that place where I knew I could get in the start and my goal that day was to win," Hudec said. "It wasn't a question or 'I don't know if I'm ready, I don't know if my body is going to hold up.' I actually got to that sweet spot."
Teammates can relate
His teammates John Kucera and Manuel Osborne-Paradis are trying to find their way to that place where they can ski freely and where they unconsciously compensate for bobbles on the course without losing speed.
The season-opening men's World Cup downhill is scheduled for Saturday at Lake Louise.
Calgary's Kucera will return to racing after breaking his leg at Lake Louise three years ago. Vancouver's Osborne-Paradis will also compete for the first time since breaking his leg in Chamonix in January, 2011.
Friday's training run was cancelled because of poor visibility due to heavy snow. In the two prior training runs, Kucera and Osborne-Paradis were coming to terms with the time it will take to get their confidence back.
Kucera (2006) and Osborne-Paradis (2009) have both won at Lake Louise.
"We know how to win so we want to ski like we can win, but our confidence isn't large enough or grand enough to be able to do that," Osborne-Paradis said. "It's a tug-of-war contest right now just getting back in there.
"You just can't get disappointed. It'll come."
Added Kucera: "What I've noticed this week is the thing I think is really missing is that confidence and just letting the skis run.
"For sure it's getting the race brain back and confidence. Especially now that I haven't skied in the last few years, it's going to take more time than I'd like, but what can you do? That's just the way it is."
Hudec has undergone six surgeries on his left leg and one on his right. While he's very familiar with the feeling of trying to return to winning form after injury, repetition doesn't make it easier.
"You have that much more trauma in your life, baggage, that's subconsciously there that you have to work through," Hudec explained.
"Visualizing after the course inspections was the hardest thing ever because literally, every other turn I'd be visualizing, I'd crash or catch at edge or see the doomsday in whatever difficult section of the course that was.
"I'd literally be sitting in a chair at the lodge re-visualizing that section eight or nine times before I could get to the point where I was skiing through it cleanly and looking for speed."
Saturday's winner will be the man who borders on recklessness but can rein himself in enough to stay upright.
"You risk as much as you possibly can, but as close to the line as you possibly can without going over with injury or catastrophic failure," Hudec said. "It's the thing that keeps you alive, but it's also the thing that makes you fast."
Dixon learning from teammates
Hudec can empathize with what Kucera and Osborne-Paradis are feeling as well as teammate Robbie Dixon, who is at square one of a major injury.
The 27-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., snapped his tibia and fibula while training in Colorado. He had a rod and four screws inserted in his right leg last week.
Dixon arrived in Lake Louise on Friday. He wanted to be around his Canadian teammates because it cheers him up. Dixon can see the recovery road ahead of him because it's been travelled by Hudec, Kucera and Osborne-Paradis.
"I can kind of see how they manage and I can learn from their experiences and the choices they made, whether it was good or bad," Dixon said. "That can kind of give me an idea of what to look for and what are some of the ups and downs I've got to embrace.
"It's good even just to be able to talk to them about their experiences . . . look for ways to make this process easier."
Mental strength and confidence is important in any sport. It's crucial in downhill skiing where going 130 kilometres per hour on two planks requires nerve and bravado. In a sport where a hundredth of second could be the difference between winning and losing.
"There's 20 guys that can win, there's five guys that know they can win and probably one or two that know they will win, but they're all capable of winning," Hudec said.