Go For The Gold


Jen Hudak competes in the freeski big air women's final at
the Winter Games NZ at Cardrona Alpine Resort on
August 20, 2011 in Wanaka, New Zealand.

In halfpipe skiing, there are women who can land 1080s. There are women who can spin 900s in both directions. But there is only one woman who has captured two world championship medals and four X Games medals and, this Friday, under the lights at the X Games in Aspen, she has no plans to win.

“I have a long way to go to ski at the level I once was,” said Jen Hudak. “But that’s no reason to stop. That’s not a reason to say, ‘I’m done.’ I just have to start over again.”

Almost every hard-charging, high-flying athlete has faced – or will eventually face – a sobering reality.

For Hudak, it has happened three times in the past three years.

In 2010, Hudak was winning almost everything in the halfpipe which – for skiers – will make its Olympic debut in Sochi. That January, she won X Games gold in Aspen and thwarted Sarah Burke’s bid at a four-peat. In March, she won gold at X Games Europe and the U.S. Championships. By the end of the season, she was ranked No. 1 by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals for the second year in a row and was nominated for an ESPY in the “Best Female Action Sports Athlete” category. Then, that June, she learned that her father, Paul, had been diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive cancer called de novo prolymphocytic (PLL) leukemia.

“My dad is the reason sports are in my life,” she said. He taught Hudak to ski in the back yard of their Vermont cabin, before each run, pulling Jen and her older sister, Cris, up the hill with a rope and a piece of lumber. When Jen fell in love with moguls skiing, he taught her all he could before she joined the freestyle team at Okemo. And when her father began coaching Jen’s high school lacrosse team in Connecticut, the squad went from losing nearly every game to achieving Division 1 status.

So after watching her father endure four rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant at Yale – where he is a distinguished computer science professor – Hudak entered the 2010-11 season as the top skier.

“I’d never been more distracted in my life,” she said. “I wasn’t used to being the one that people were chasing, and I didn’t appreciate that what went on at home had taken a toll on me. I put an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself.”

Jen Hudak skis in the halfpipe finals of the FIS Freestyle
World Cup at the VISA U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix on December 9,
2011 in Copper Mountain, Colorado.

In her first contest, she tweaked her knee. At the next, she didn’t qualify for the final, and retreated to her parents’ home in Connecticut. One month later, at the 2011 X Games, she was landing 1080s in practice and seemed poised to defend her title. No female skier had ever landed a 1080 at the X Games and, when it counted, Hudak made the three revolutions, touched down, and turned around to celebrate winning another title “for my dad” when she caught an edge and fell. The run didn’t count and she placed fifth.

As the season continued, she said, “I was skiing better than the previous year, just not getting results. Judging is brutal. They judge you against your past self, and that’s why you have to be okay with your ‘path.’ But it was driving me crazy: why am I not winning?”

That March, at the 2011 European X Games, Hudak found herself lying in the bottom of the halfpipe with a dislocated shoulder and thought, “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. My dad is sick. I try to ski. For what? So I can crash?”

Hudak had been a regular customer at the hospital for a long time – from a broken thumb to a broken nose, separated shoulder, sprained wrist, bone bruises, torn meniscus, bruised rotator cuff, and/or torn cartilage in her ribs. And all that was just during her first season.

“I was in the hospital every two weeks,” she said of that winter 10 years ago.

But all that was a prelude to a major double whammy in 2012 – a combination that she said has put her “in a totally different place now: mentally, physically,” and has been the basis for her radically different attitude this week at the X Games.

On January 10, 2012, Hudak failed to clear a table-top jump while skiing at Breckenridge, Colo., and destroyed her right knee. “I didn’t have enough speed and went from 65 feet to the flat,” she said.

Hudak tore her ACL, meniscus, and cracked the surface of her femur which leaked bone marrow into the joint.

A few hours later, Canadian Sarah Burke crashed hard on a halfpipe in Park City, Utah, and went into cardiac arrest.

Burke had been a dear friend, and one whose excellence had motivated Hudak to push hard reach the top of the podium herself.

When Hudak was told that Burke’s heart had stopped for several minutes, she knew instantly what that meant.

“I didn’t think she’d pass away,” Hudak said, “but I knew it wouldn’t be the same Sarah. Really, all I could think about was Sarah.”

Burke had also ruptured an artery that supplied blood to the brain and was in a coma for several days before losing her life nine days after the accident.

“We still think about her every day,” Hudak said.

Meanwhile, Hudak spent nine months recovering from her fifth knee surgery and didn’t return to snow until this past November.

“The knee is still not 100 percent,” she said, explaining that last Wednesday was “the first time I trusted my body if things didn’t go perfectly.”

So when Hudak competes at the X Games on Friday at age 26 (the only female skier in the field who competed in the inaugural X Games event in 2005) her expectations are modest.

“I have no plans to land on the podium this year,” she said.

“After everything with Sarah, this knee injury, and my father [who will be watching], it’s time to take a step back.

“I’m a completely different person than I was a year ago. The person I was before brought me so much success. I accomplished things with such a youthful burning desire and a will to be the best. That is what fueled me in my [past] recovery and pushed me to learn new tricks. This time, it didn’t. My motivation in getting back out there now is simply for the sake of trying.

“I’ve won all these things – and those things will always be with me – but there are still things I have yet to achieve. I want to be an Olympian.”

After Friday, Hudak has two more events on her calendar: the Grand Prix in Park City, Utah, and the World Cup test event in Sochi, Russia, in February. After that, she plans to get back in the gym and focus on Olympic qualifying next year.

But for now, her message is: “Never be afraid to put yourself out there and try even though you know you can’t win.”

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.