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On Saturday, Jan Hudec buried a loonie at the finish line of the Super G race at Sochi Olympics. After a lousy week, he knew Canada's alpine speed team needed all the luck it could get.
On Sunday morning, under the warm Russian sun in the Western Caucasus mountains, Hudec pumped his gut full of pills to numb the pain from a catalogue of injuries and took a damn-the-torpedoes strategy. "I knew it was today or never," he said "I took all the risks."
So he went for it, knowing full well that he needed the best run of his life to end Canada's shameful 20-year absence from the Olympic alpine skiing podium. If that weren't pressure enough, two Super G hotshots – the formidable Bode Miller of the United States and Norway's Kjetil Jansrud -- had gone before him and posted killer times.
Hudec, no youngster at 32, blasted down the steep, 2.1-kilometre course and through its 37 turning gates – the Super G half way between a downhill and a slalom -- in lovely form. If his back pain was excruciating, he wasn't showing it.
He finished third – a tie with Miller, who had won three medals at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. The winner was Jansrud, who had won bonze in the downhill. Andrew Weibrecht of the United States took silver; he had won bronze in the same event in Vancouver in 2010. Hudec (and Miller) had missed gold by only 0.53 of a second.
Medal drought for Canada over. Two decades of team humiliation gone in a flash. Ski team funding about to be restored. Even if it was not gold, this bronze will emerge as one of the most important Canadian medals of the entire games. In effect, the survival of the entire Canadian alpine racing effort depended on it.
"I feel awesome," the bearded, Czech-born Calgarian said. "It's been a crazy road to get here. About four years ago, I could not get out of bed with a back injury and I didn't know if I would be able to ski at all this season."
Maybe luck did have a little to do with it.
Shortly after the finish of the race, Hudec, on his mobile phone, was conducting a treasure hunt with Paul Kristofic, vice-president of sports at long-suffering Alpine Canada. Kristofic was at the finish line searching for the loonie that had been sent to the team by Max Gartner, the former head of Alpine Canada, and his wife Kerrin Lee-Gartner, the last Canadian athlete to win an Olympic alpine gold, in 1992. "A bit to the left, no right, I think right there," Hudec said.
Kristofic found the coin, bounded down the hill, and, his eyes apparently tearing up, handed it to Hudec. Beaming, while explaining to the foreign press that a loonie was a Canadian one-dollar coin, he said "Yesterday, after the second warm-up run, I went to the finish and buried a loonie on the finish line and figured it was good luck…It'll be worth more than a dollar now."
The Canadian alpine team had been under enormous pressure to win a medal – the last Olympic podium finish had come in 1994, when Ed Podivinsky took bronze in the downhill.
Among the four Canadians who competed in the Super G, Hudec was not expected to win a medal. Erik Guay was widely considered the top Canadian podium candidate. But Sochi has not treated him well – he finished 10th last week in the downhill even though he was one of the medal favourites. Guay missed a gate at the lower end of the Super G race after what had been a decent run.
At 32, Guay is unlikely to compete in another Olympics though he will almost certainly return to the world cup, where he has 21 podiums, a record for a Canadian skier. "I still feel I have a lot of skiing left in my body," he said, putting on a brave face even though his teammates said he was shattered.
So it was Hudec, not Guay, who has put Canada back on the alpine map and he did so in style. The tie with Miller was no small accomplishment. And he beat World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who finished seventh.
But there was yet another Canadian surprise. Morgan Pridy who, at 23, is the youngster on the speed team, finished 10th in the Super G, only one second behind the winner. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like the Vancouver kid, who was competing in his first Olympics, might land on the podium. "I was just happy to be in the winner's box for a little while," he said.
Steve Podborski, Canada's Sochi chef de mission who was one of the "Crazy Canucks" skiers of the early 1980s, said Pridy "skied like a demon. And that's really the second great story of today."
The fourth Canadian skier in the event, Manny Osborne-Paradis, finished 24th. He was good natured about his poor performance, heaping praise on Hudec.
The Canadian alpine team is beyond thrilled by Hudec's podium finish, in good part because funding from the Own The Podium program, which rewards the winners and pretty much forgets about the losers, will no doubt increase. "It's critical to have a medal," Podborski said. "OTP will be very happy with that."
The extra funding would help develop Pridy and the next generation of skiers who are aiming for the 2018 Olympic Games. In the four years to 2014, the Canadian alpine team received $7.2-million in funding, down from the $8.7-million in the lead up to the Vancouver games.
Hudec's medal gives Alpine Canada a powerful argument to move the funding back up to Vancouver levels, perhaps higher in preparation for the 2018 winter Games. In that sense, Hudec's bronze is gold. "He's been a warrior today," Podborski said.