Jan Hudec enters 'the final battle scene'
Question is, can the Olympic hero's 'broken body' hold up for one more glorious run?
In spring training for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, Jan Hudec ripped around a turn on his first downhill run of the day.
The 2014 Olympic bronze medallist caught an edge, landed on his butt and skidded off the track onto the raw glacier below. His wayward skis dug into the crust, and he cartwheeled to a bloody stop.
The impact tweaked his knee, tore his rotator cuff and, for good measure, broke his index finger.
Five months after that epic tumble in the Austrian Alps, Hudec is coming off what he thinks are the 13th and 14th surgeries of his career (an arthroscopic procedure on his knee and rotator-cuff repair).
In truth, the battered 36-year-old Banff, Alta., product has lost count of the number of his visits to the operating room.
"This is like the final battle scene," says Hudec, who left the Canadian ski team last year amid concerns about his health and a dispute over an estimated $35,000 to pay for a ski technician. "The hero either dies or is somehow, against all odds, victorious.
"Even surviving this battle, for me, will be victorious."
Die another day
After the latest shoulder surgery in September, the doctor advised Hudec that he needed at least three months for the rotator cuff to settle down enough to ski at an elite level.
The PyeongChang Olympics are less than four months away, and Hudec needs World Cup and International Ski Federation (FIS) points to qualify to represent the country of his birth, the Czech Republic.
He initially planned to compete Nov. 25 and 26 in the men's downhill and super-G World Cup openers in Lake Louise, Alta., but admits the chances are slim.
"I'm just taking it day to day and trying to get back in time," says Hudec, who was just a baby when he fled the former Czechoslovakia with his parents in a homemade dinghy. "I've got new equipment and a broken body.
"It's just been one thing after another for me in the last year or so."
But he warns against prematurely writing the obituary on his storied ski racing career.
"This isn't my banquet speech," says Hudec, who won downhill silver at the 2007 world championships in Sweden. "I don't want to go to another Olympics just to hang out. I've been there and done that. I want to go there to accomplish something for the country I was born in.
"It's been an uphill battle, but I still have a glimmer of hope that it's doable."
The final chapter
Keep in mind: Hudec has made a career of doing the seemingly undoable. Crippled by back pain, unable to even haul himself out of bed a month before the Sochi Games, he put down the run of his life and won a bronze medal in the super-G.
That marked Canada's first visit to the Olympic alpine podium in 20 years.
"The odds are even more difficult now," says Max Gartner, Hudec's Calgary-based manager. "But if his body is co-operating, don't count Jan out. Look at his history.
"He has a gift. He's not your regular athlete. He has this amazing ability to zone in and deliver."
If he can't deliver in time for the Lake Louise World Cup, Hudec hopes to race on the Nor-Am circuit a few weeks later in Lake Louise and then in Panorama, B.C.
For a man who made a living beating the clock, time is now the enemy.
"In some ways, this is disheartening," says Hudec, who also competed for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Games. "I thought my last chapter of my ski career would be a little easier. I wasn't expecting it to be like this.
"I've lived my whole life jumping over hurdles. That's what I do. I show up. I fight.
"But this time, I'm trying to figure out whether this is really meant to be part of my path or if it's a not-so-gentle guide to be on a different path."