Road To The Olympic Games

Alpine Skiing

Skier Jan Hudec's body never broke his competitive spirit — until now

If there was such thing as a broken body, alpine skier Jan Hudec would fit the bill. He's had 14 surgeries, including eight on his right knee. But through it all, Hudec won Olympic bronze and world championship silver and he couldn't be more at peace going into retirement.

Olympic bronze medallist is calling it a career after 14 surgeries

Jan Hudec won Olympic bronze in the men's super-G despite suffering a herniated disc two weeks before the Sochi Games. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Jan Hudec wakes up most days feeling like a man much older than 36.

"When I can't crouch down and play with my son, it's tough," the three-time Olympian told CBC Sports this week before boarding a plane to wrap up his 19-year career Saturday at Banff's Bozo Cup. "And with my shoulder, even lying down is difficult. 

"The best thing would be if I could turn into a snake. Then I could just lie down and still get places."

Seeing as a reptilian transformation is unlikely, Hudec is instead retiring from ski racing to launch a new career in the (soon-to-be-legalized) cannabis industry.

His sporting resume tells the story of tremendous success: Olympic bronze for Canada in super-G (2014), world championship silver in downhill (2007) and five World Cup medals, including precious gold at home in 2007 at Lake Louise. 

His medical chart documents some of the obstacles along the way including 14 surgeries, eight of them on the right knee. And he needs at least two more operations in the coming months after competing for his native Czech Republic at the 2018 WInter Games in Pyeongchang.

"My focus for the past few years has been to try to hold the body together and make it to Korea," said Hudec, who fled the former Czechoslovakia as a toddler with his parents in a dinghy. "I am so proud to have been able to represent both Canada and the Czech Republic — my two countries."

'I knew my body was broken'

In Pyeongchang, Hudec placed 45th in the downhill and did not finish in the super-G, but he sees qualifying for the Games as a victory in itself.

"By the end I knew my body was broken," he said. "I did what I wanted to do but it's a good time to move on. I'm very grateful for everything I've been able to experience. I have so many incredible memories."

True to form, Hudec raced at his final Olympics with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and badly damaged rotator cuff.

"Basically, I just need a new knee — but at 36, no one wants to give me one," he said. "I need a new right knee. And my right shoulder basically didn't survive the season. I beat it up all year, and now it's kind of giving me the middle finger."

Chaos in motion

One of the true characters in Canadian sport, Hudec is best described as chaos in motion — both on and off the mountain. Known for showing up in the start gate at the last possible second, Hudec could somehow block out all distractions and put down a blazing fast run when it counted the most.

Case in point: two weeks prior to the Sochi Games, Hudec threw out his back in the weight room and ended up bedridden with a herniated disc. At the time, no one in the ski community expected him to even compete at the Olympics, never mind win a medal.

But there he was at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort— with nothing to lose — rocketing down the slope and winning super-G bronze to end Canada's 20-year Olympic drought without gracing the alpine podium.

"Jan went into Sochi and his body had broken down at the most important time," said former Alpine Canada president Max Gartner. "And he still managed to deliver, which is just an amazing achievement.

"If they say you're supposed to wear out your body before you die, Jan is certainly ahead of most people."

No hard feelings

In 2016, Hudec transferred to the Czech team after a dispute with Alpine Canada over funding and concerns about his fitness after one of his many surgeries.

On the brink of retirement, Hudec harbours no hard feelings towards the Canadian federation and is grateful for the chance to represent the country of his birth.

"I'm way too busy to be mad at anyone or hold a grudge," he said. "I'm still really friendly with everyone at Alpine Canada, even the people who made the decision. For me, it's too much of an energy drain to dwell on it in a negative way."

And Hudec needs his energy as he starts the next chapter of his life working for Black Shire Capital, focusing on business development in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Sitting back and relaxing just isn't an option for a man who made a living out of ripping down cragged mountain sides at speeds of more than 130 km/hr.

"There's a huge market for cannabis, and it's not just in Canada— it's worldwide," Hudec said. "I've literally never even touched the stuff in my life.

"But maybe I'll have to try."

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