KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — About a month ago, Canadian downhiller Jan Hudec jumped into the air during a simple training drill and landed in tremendous pain.
There went a disk in his lower back. There went the Sochi Olympics, he thought at the time, maybe his season and perhaps even his career. The bulging disk was that painful.
Day by day, though, the pain has lessened. He was on the mountain Wednesday, taking some easy runs on a hill adjacent to the downhill track.
His said his back felt good — really good, in fact. It took plenty of physical therapy to get it to this point — and some nerve blockers.
"This is progressing faster than I could've imagined," he said.
The 32-year-old Hudec is a strong medal contender, particularly in the super-G where he's currently seventh in the World Cup standings. At least, he was a favorite before his back suddenly flared up when he mistimed a jump in a workout session, pitching his upper body forward.
"I've hurt my back before, but it was much more violent this time," he said. "For three days I basically couldn't walk on my own."
Hudec isn't the only Canadian skier dealing with an injury. Erik Guay, who won a World cup race in December, recently skipped a competition to rest an aching knee.
The charismatic Hudec was certainly in a jovial mood on Wednesday, showing off a special helmet decal he had made just for Sochi — a picture of a panda wearing a menacing eye patch. It's a nod to his nickname, Panda, a moniker which started about four years ago. Hudec explained in his team biography: "I'm a little round and furry like a panda, and seem slow and nice, but when it's time to fight — it's on. I bring my game."
Although Hudec has undergone six surgeries on his right knee and another on his left, this back injury had him quite concerned.
He gradually eased back into training with the help of a physical therapist. He skipped a few races simply because he didn't want to push his back too fast. He returned to the starting gate for a super-G in Kitzbuehel, Austria, on Jan. 26 to see how his back would respond. It held up, and he finished 29th — encouraging news, even if he was one of his worst results of the season.
After squeezing in a few training runs, Hudec good-naturedly bantered with Italian skier Christof Innerhofer near the lift.
"So you're confident here, huh?" Innerhofer asked him.
"Tons (of confidence)," Hudec responded.
In a test event at this venue two years ago, Hudec finished 24th in the downhill. But the course has been altered since then and he thinks the changes will suit him — back willing, of course.
"From what I've heard, it's a little better course than when we were here two years ago," said Hudec, who finished 23rd in the super-G and 25th in the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games. "I know a lot of the downhillers were complaining because it was a scrappy downhill. You had to fight your way to make some gates at the top and it was way too turny. It's a little bit better downhill set now.
"They've done a good job preparing it, so hopefully it holds up for the race."