By JEROME PUGMIRE, Associated Press
CHAMONIX, France (AP) — Jan Hudec sensed something good was about to happen. He got out of bed and for the first time in many years he wasn't in pain.
Having struggled so long during a career that reads like a long orthopedic report, Hudec won a World Cup downhill in a great day for Canadian skiing. Teammates Erik Guay finished third and Benjamin Thomsen was fifth as part of the Maple Leaf surge on a piercingly cold day when temperatures sank to minus 15.
It had been more than four years since Hudec last won. And this was only the second World Cup victory for the 30-year-old skier.
"I woke up this morning feeling the best I've felt for 10, maybe 12 years," Hudec said. "The first time that I really didn't feel like I had pain in my knee or in my back."
Hudec thumped his chest with his fist when he realized victory was his and his long wait was over.
"What can I say? I knew the day was coming," he said. "Sometimes it's harder for everybody else to see, but I knew it was coming. I was close a few times this season, but I was still missing something in my skiing and I knew Chamonix was a good start."
The injuries — six knee operations and agonizing back pains that almost ended his career — have done more than batter Hudec's body. They have changed the way he looks not only at skiing but at himself.
"It's such an intricate part of who I've become and where I've come from. It's such a part of my journey that I can't really forget," he said. "It would have been nice to have got to this point without so many injuries, but at the same time I think it's made me who I am, and made it that much sweeter to come back and win."
The icy slope suited Hudec's gliding skills. He finished in 2 minutes, 3.25 seconds, followed by Austria's Romed Baumann in 2:03.78. Guay, the reigning world downhill champion, was 0.63 seconds behind the winner.
"I knew I didn't have too many more chances to do what I want in ski racing," Hudec said. "It was a very small window and I definitely had to start focusing. I'm very fortunate that I have a lot of people around me that care about me, and about the whole team."
Thomsen added to Canada's bountiful day by sneaking into fifth place despite being the 50th skier to go down.
"I think we have been building a really great team in the last years ... and then our team has sort of been plagued with injuries and we lost that momentum that we had started to build," Guay said. "Now that Jan is back I feel like he is starting to push me a bit and it motivates the team. ... It's quite a story with the way he's come back."
Switzerland's Beat Feuz was fourth, with Austria's Klaus Kroell sixth and Switzerland's Didier Cuche seventh. The top U.S. skier was Bode Miller in eighth place. Miller, who was second in Friday's downhill, lost time after a solid start.
In the overall World Cup standings, defending champion Ivica Kostelic of Croatia leads with 905 points. Cuche, who retires this year, is defending his World Cup downhill title and leads after eight races with 473 points.
Hudec was trailing Baumann until he reached the midsection and then started shaving huge chunks off the Austrian's time. While Kroell won Friday's downhill by just 0.01 seconds, Hudec smashed Baumann's time by 0.53 to deprive the Austrians of a second straight win.
This was Hudec's first triumph since the downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta, in November 2007. He had started that year promisingly with a silver medal at the worlds in Are, Sweden, and ended it with a third-place finish in a World Cup downhill at Bormio, Italy, a month later.
Then his career plummeted — he tore ligaments in his right knee and needed repeated surgery. His body was battered — he had full reconstructive surgery on his knee four times, three times on his right and once on his left. What's more, he had two further knee operations and twice severely damaged his back.
"Physio has obviously been a huge part of my life, almost a bigger part of my life than skiing," Hudec said. "I herniated a disk in my back, first time 10 years ago and then it was OK for about 10 years, and then two years ago — at the beginning of last season — it happened again.
"Basically it was just patching things together," he added. "I didn't ski all summer because of my back."
Hudec was close to victory Friday, holding the leading time early on before slipping to sixth place.
"I felt yesterday like I had a winning run but it was maybe too early a start ... but no excuses," he said. "I didn't think it was possible, but I had an even better run than yesterday and put the nail in the coffin as they say."
Hudec's run Saturday was even more special because he did not have the best light after starting 24th on the La Verte des Houches course. Those before had blue skies and profited from brighter sunshine.
After a tricky and technical top section, Hudec found himself behind Baumann, but as he started to pick up speed he went 0.36, 0.47 and 0.54 ahead at successive splits.
"I've always said that Jan is probably one of the best natural skiers out there," Guay said. "Especially when it comes to gliding, he's absolutely unbelievable, as we saw in the bottom section today. It's exceptional what he did today, but it's also good for the team because it motivates everyone to do better."
Baumann thought he had won, except he hadn't checked who was next down the hill.
"I didn't have the start list," Baumann said through a translator. "And I didn't realize Hudec was starting after me."
Jerome Pugmire can be reached at www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.