Sometimes, the old-timers show the path for the young, vibrant stars of the World Cup ski circuit.
Witness the brilliance of Swiss star Didier Cuche, oft-injured Canadian stalwart Jan Hudec, and Austrian veteran Benjamin Raich, who came back from a serious knee injury at age 34 to win his first race in two years in the famed White Circus this winter.
Cuche is an evergreen at 37, and just won on his last weekend before a home crowd in Switzerland before taking on this week’s challenges at the former Olympic hill at Kvitfjell, Norway – where he’s won three times and been on the podium an amazing eight occasions. He’s within seven points of super-G leader Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway who has 288 points.
Hudec is 30 this summer, not quite as old as Cuche, won at Chamonix, France. The Calgary skier had spent as much time in rehab as he has on the ski hills after six operations on his knees, a broken hand and bad back.
He goes into Friday’s super-G at Kvitfjell third in the World Cup super-G standings with 210 points after a silver last Friday and a fifth place finish Saturday at Crans-Montana, Switzerland. He takes on a World Cup downhill at Kvitfjell Saturday (he is a top-10 skier in downhill) and another super-G on Sunday.
To win on the hill near the Olympic town of Lillehammer, they need to overcome the local knowledge of Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, a comparative youngster at 26, who won his second downhill training at Kvitfjell yesterday, with Cuche second. Canadian Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was tied for fourth in training. He is 13th in the super-G points race with 116. Jansrud has seven World Cup podiums on his resume, but none of them in downhill. Also in Friday’s downhill training: Hudec was 15th, Ben Thomsen of Invermere, B.CD., 34th, Robbie Dixon of Whistler, B.C., 41st, Dustin Cook of Lac-Sainte-Marie, Que., 50th, Louis-Pierre Helie of Berthierville, Que., 54th, Conrad Pridy of Whistler, 55th, Jeff Frisch of Mont-Tremblant, 59th and Morgan Pridy of Whistler 66th.
“Experience plays a big role,” says Cuche, who keeps insisting he will retire at the end of the season but so far had won four times in his so-called farewell tour. Ten of his wins have come after his 35th birthday.
He’s an admirer of those who stick with it through injury. “Nobody had enough patience to let him do what he could do,” he said of Raich.
The same also goes for Hudec, who has endured four reconstructions of anterior cruciate ligament structures of his knees. He had to keep believing in his ability to come back. “Living a life of mostly rehab can get tedious after a while, and frustrating,” Hudec said if reaching the top podium in Chamonix.
“I never stopped believing I could be back... I could just kind of smell it.”
Hudec, who first raced on the World Cup circuit when the ill-fated men’s team was headed for Salt Lake City. The team performed so poorly it was disbanded and didn’t finish the 2002 World Cup circuit.
His personal story includes his family fleeing their Czech homeland – he was born in the town of Sumperk - in a boat when he was a child. The family spent time in a West German refugee camp, before eventually getting to Alberta.
He is considered one of the most naturally gifted skiers on the men’s speed team.
In 2007 he became the first Canadian in the history of the Lake Louise World Cup to win the downhill. He also claimed a world championship silver medal that year at Are, Sweden.
He went through a crisis of confidence after teammate and former world downhill champ John Kucera suffered a broken leg and at Olympics in Whistler he had a run “that I thought was much better than the outcome” he said. He was 23rd in the super-G and 25th in the downhill.
“The most frustrating time for me was at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, because of (a herniated disc in) my back. Physically, I was fit but with the bad back I couldn’t ski to my full potential,” he said. He pulled himself together for this year, telling the media he was ready to take on Lake Louise.
“I’ve been getting the retirement question for about three years, mainly from people who don’t know me personally and don’t know my character. They just see an older guy who has had injuries and assume I want to quit. That’s not how I work.
“I’m still passionate about the sport and at the same time I feel like there are things I still haven’t accomplished. If I didn’t believe I could still do it, I would retire. But I’m 30 years old and [Swiss star Didier]Cuche is 37.”
And age would not be an impediment, he said.
“I feel ready to ski instead of feeling tired from too much skiing. I’m skiing fast ... I know I’m on the right track.”