Back from injury, Jen Hudak ready to soar at Winter X
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Moments after her final run at a Dew Tour halfpipe competition in Snowbasin, Utah earlier this month, tears flooded Jen Hudak’s eyes.
Her sister figured the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club post-graduate skier was bemoaning her second-place finish, the result of a back-seat landing on a 900.
It was quite the opposite.
“It wasn’t sadness. I told her, ‘I can’t believe what I’m doing here. I’m already back at this level,'” Hudak said Friday. “I didn’t know when it would happen, or if it would happen.”
With good reason.
The 23-year-old Connecticut native remembers Jan. 31, 2009’s pipe run at a World Cup event in Park City with striking clarity. Then again, such jarring falls are impossible to forget.
Hudak landed backwards on an attempted 720, caught an edge and was thrown into the opposite wall as she skidded to the snow.
“I initially didn’t notice the knee pain – I slammed my back pretty hard,” Hudak remembered. “It knocked the breath out of me a bit. … When I stood up, I couldn’t put any pressure on my left leg when it was the downhill ski. I had shooting pain in the knee.”
Hudak pulled out of the event, and was on crutches the rest of the day. Local doctors, who found no structural damage to her ACL and MCL, figured she had merely damaged her meniscus.
The day before the U.S. Open a few weeks later, Hudak decided to have an MRI in Colorado. It revealed a severe cartilage tear – all the way to the bone in some areas, she said.
“They recommended that I not ski,” Hudak said.
“I skied on it anyway.”
That headstrong mentality paid off, as she won the U.S. Open. In early March, she took third at the World Ski Championships in Inawashiro, Japan.
But while the results were there, Hudak said her trust in her knee was not.
“It started feeling really strange. I had these weird, spidery sensations,” she added. “My knee was hyper-extending backwards when I was walking around.”
Upon her return from Japan, Hudak opted to cut short her season – one that also included a second-place finish at the Winter X Games and a Dew Tour win in Mount Snow and second-place result in Breckenridge.
“It’s something I had to do just for peace of mind,” she opined.
Soon after, she headed to the Stone Clinic in San Francisco. There, Hudak – who has experienced everything from a partially torn ACL in her right knee to the typical bumps, bruises and broken bones that accompany her chosen profession – underwent a unique procedure.
Stem cells, harvested from the inside of her knee, were turned into a paste and re-adhered to the surface of the bone, Hudak said. A tear of the posterolateral corner of the knee, which causes instability, was reinforced with cadaver grafts and her meniscus was repaired.
The first step was complete.
Hudak spent the next four weeks holed up in a hotel room near the clinic, rehabbing for three to four hours each day. The progress was painstakingly slow; she said she could not walk or ride a stationary bike in the early going.
Doctors told Hudak that her cartilage would be firm in six months, but likely would take a year to fully mature.
“It’s a lot more of a finesse game, a patience game,” she added. “That’s not really my style.
“I definitely had a few moments [of concern]. A couple months down the road when my leg was still tiny and I could barely make my way down the stairs … it was hard to imagine being able to get back to my full level of competition. … I kept with it. I kept going.”
Even through the setbacks, from lingering bone aches to an allergic reaction caused by dissolvable stitches, prompting the need for another surgery some six weeks after the first.
“I knew, for me, that this was my job for the next six months,” she said. “It was something to focus on and be a priority. My knee is essentially my livelihood. I took it like every other challenge. It was a goal I set for myself, and I wanted to do it as thoroughly as possible.”
In September, Hudak finally stepped back into ski boots during a trip to Chile.
“I decided to go see where I was at to know where I needed to be four months later,” she said. “I did fairly well. … I wasn’t jumping. I wasn’t in a halfpipe.”
She took that step at Copper Mountain soon after Thanksgiving, vowing only to “just show up with no expectations and take things slow.”
Later, Hudak landed her first 720 since the crash.
“There was some tension the first time I went to do it, but I have the ability to out-logic my emotions, tell myself ‘I’ve done a lot more stuff I’ve landed than crashed on,'” she said.
“I’m not completely holding back. I think I’m cautious, not forcing myself to do things. I listen to my body to see where my knees are at.”
The recent Dew Tour result – in Hudak’s first major competition since the surgery – provided some positive reinforcement.
Now, with her knee “90 percent of the way there,” she is setting her sights on Aspen. Hudak finished on the podium in each of the last three Winter X Games superpipe events.
To claim her first gold in Friday’s final (4:30 p.m.), Hudak will have to thwart Canadian Sarah Burke’s bid for a four-peat.
Hudak is no stranger to challenges.
“[This last year] has definitely been hard, but I’m doing amazingly well now,” she said. “The hard work paid off.”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.