By Jamie Komarnicki
CALGARY — Champagne and happy tears flowed late into the night as Vladi Hudec gathered around the TV with friends in Canmore to watch her son Jan Hudec ski to a historic bronze medal in men’s super-G at the Winter Games in Sochi.
Amid the elation and pride, Vladi couldn’t help thinking back to a moment 26 years ago.
In 1988, the Hudec family — newly arrived in Alberta after fleeing the former Czechoslovakia — took in the alpine events in Nakiska for Calgary’s Winter Games.
After watching in awe as the athletes roared down the mountain, little Jan Hudec, 6, turned to his parents with an announcement.
“He proclaimed that day, ‘That is what I want to be, I want to be in the Olympics, I want to be a downhill skier,’ ” recalled Vladi Hudec on Sunday.
“Jan has been skiing and racing since he was six years old. He wins an Olympic medal when he’s 32. You can imagine the journey and the belief and the faith it can happen and it will happen if you persevere. The circle is completed.”
The medal-winning ski at the Sochi Olympics — Canada’s first in alpine sports at the Games in 20 years — had Hudec’s many fans cheering the athlete.
The Calgarian’s roller-coaster career has seen him struggling with injuries, including seven knee surgeries in the last decade and a herniated disc in his back just weeks before the Games.
In Calgary, former Alpine Canada president Max Gartner was a little ragged on Sunday morning after a mostly sleepless night after Hudec’s ski.
“He seemed in a very good spirit going into the race. He had some major challenges, but that’s not new to Jan,” said Gartner, who works with Hudec managing sponsorships through his company Gold Mettle.
“In this particular event, you have to put it on the line, and he did.”
Gartner, who supplied the now-legendary loonie Hudec buried near the finish line of the super-G race for good luck, said the win is a big deal for the Calgary athlete and an important achievement for the sport overall.
“We needed one medal. It’s that simple,” he said.
The medal means more federal funding and will likely help secure additional corporate sponsorship, which is key when it comes to sustaining the expensive sport.
While Canada has been able to fund top prospects, Hudec’s win could translate into more opportunities for young athletes, he said.
“We’re competing with the Austrians and the Swiss, where that’s their hockey. Their funding doesn’t swing much, it stays very consistent,” said Gardner.
“It was a big win for Jan, but it was very big for the sport. It just allows all these other young racers that are out there to chase their dream.”
Alpine Canada’s president Mark Rubinstein said Hudec’s medal is a sign of big things to come for the sport.
”Even though Jan and all our alpine athletes have been performing exceptionally well the last several years, a medal is something special,” he said.
Meanwhile Vladi Hudec said she spent Sunday “just on Cloud 9” as she was inundated with calls and well-wishes for her son.
“As a mother, I see a different aspect to an athlete than just what people see on TV. I was very, very happy for my son, I know how much hard work is behind that, all the adversity he had to overcome,” she said.
The Hudec family left the former Czechoslovakia in 1981 by boat, spending time in a West German refugee camp before making their way to Red Deer with just a few suitcases, she said.
Her son showed skiing talent as a young boy, spending time with his father who coached the sport.
“Jan, being six, was skiing with them and trying to keep up. That helped him to move faster in his abilities,” his mother said.
Vladi Hudec said her son’s perseverance in alpine skiing is an inspiration.
“To see (Jan) reach the highest point where he represents Canada internationally, in the World Cup or Olympics, and be on the podium, it just builds the sense of pride of being Canadian.”