For an often-injured and reconstructed skier thought to be at the end his career, Jan Hudec didn't just make a comeback, but made believers out of ski fans.
The 30-year-old downhill and super-G skier closed out a consistent comeback season on the World Cup circuit Thursday with a 12th-place finish in the final super-G of the year at Schladming, Austria. Teammate Erik Guay was 19th.
Hudec was fast at the top of the course before slowing on the more technical bottom section. Reigning world downhill champion Guay, of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was seven spots further back.
It was also a day for suspense to build, as Austria's Marcel Hirscher – locked in a battle with Switzerland's Beat Feuz for the overall title – narrowed the gap by reaching the podium in third spot in only his fourth career World Cup super-G race.
"I skied the top really well. I had exactly the line that I wanted," said Hudec, whose year has included a first World Cup downhill victory since 2007 and his first career World Cup podium in super-G.
"It just came down to the [set]at the end. On the podium it's all guys who really like turning. I did what I could. I thought I had a really good run. It is what it is."
Hudec, who took part of the last season away from the team to rebuild his confidence after teammate John Kucera suffered a compound leg fracture at Lake Louise, Alta., spent much of the summer battling a troublesome back injury. This was on top of a history of six serious knee injuries that threatened of end his career.
Yet he has been a consistent force on the World Cup circuit, ranked sixth in the world in super-G and ninth in downhill. He's scored points in every World Cup race he has entered this season. Hudec earned a combined 548 points in those disciplines, an Alpine Canada report said.
"I'm glad to come down 12th," said Hudec, who finished second in super-G in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, on Feb. 24. "I'm well over 500 points for the season, which is great. … I've got points in every single World Cup race I've been in this year in the two disciplines, so I'm pretty stoked about that."
Paul Kristofic, head coach of the men's team, was hoping for better results Thursday but called Hudec's year-long performance "his best World Cup season ever. He's been really consistent," Kristofic said. "It's been a great season, all in all. There are lots of areas to get better in but we can start next season in a really good place."
Hudec, who clocked a time of 1 minute, 22.27 seconds Thursday, was fourth- and sixth-fastest, respectively, in the first two intervals.
Guay, who has been stronger in downhill than super-G this season, finished in 1:23.03. The 2010 super-G Crystal Globe winner, who also battled with a back injury this summer, ends the year ranked 12th in the world in super-G. He is ranked seventh in downhill and has a total of 537 points in both disciplines.
Thursday's race had huge implications in the battle for Crystal Globes. Swiss veteran Didier Cuche, in his last World Cup super-G prior to a planned retirement, finished the race ninth, not good enough to overtake Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal for the year-end award. Svindal was 16th and takes the super-G title with 413 points, 13 more than Cuche.
Hirscher, chasing Feuz in the race for the overall title, raced Thursday on a course that was made for the Austrian's skill. Feuz seemed to have secured the overall crown with a second-place finish in Wednesday's downhill, but fell and did not finish Thursday. Heading into the giant slalom and slalom – Hirscher's best events – Feuz leads the over all standing with 1,330 points., a tenuous lead of 75 points over Hirscher. One hundred points are awarded for a victory.
Italy's Christof Innerhofer took the win Thursday in a time of 1:21.24, with France's Alexis Pinturault finishing second in 1:21.26. Hirscher was third, clocking a time of 1:21.30.
Next up at the World Cup finals is Friday's team event. With Hudec, Guay and Ben Thomsen, of Invermere, B.C., heading home after Thursday's race to prepare for the Canadian Championships – which get underway in Le Massif, Que., on Saturday – Canada will not take part in the team competition.
Canada's Marie-Michèle Gagnon, of Lac-Etchemin, Que., and Erin Mielzynski, of Guelph, Ont., will compete in Saturday's ladies' slalom, and Mike Janyk, of Whistler, B.C., is set to race in Sunday's men's slalom.