Giving Thanks: Living for the love of it

Skiing star Jen Hudak finds redemption through mountain bikes

Interviews

As we head into Thanksgiving, RoadBikeReview brings you a pair of stories under the banner “Giving Thanks” that detail personal stories of adversity and redemption through cycling. We hope they serve as a reminder of how lucky we all are to be part of this amazing sporting community.

Into the white

The weight of my legs compressed my torso, as if I had descended a slide head first. My cheeks and nose were cold and wet. I could hear faint noises around me—a voice over a loudspeaker and a few other voices approaching, but everything was heavily muted. As the light began to flood my eyes, the world around me came into focus, and I realized where I was.

For the last 10 years I’d been living in a tunnel, chasing my dream of becoming an Olympian. The goal was an ambitious one, but I was undaunted when I set out—a wide-eyed, naïve teenager, who believed anything was possible and entirely under my control. I was born an athlete—competitive, highly energetic and strong—and learned to ski at an early age. Skiing was always something I deeply loved.

Despite hating to wear clothes as a child, I would eagerly put on my winter garb, if it meant I could ski. Skiing was what I did on mountains and it wasn’t until those mountains were blanketed in snow that I really knew how to have fun. I just purely loved to ski and more than that, I loved the process of improving.

Hudak was practically born on the slopes.

Hudak was practically born on the slopes.

This combination of athleticism, love for the sport, and a process-oriented mindset carried me far, and by the age of 15 I was competing internationally. Some may have called it prodigious, but I didn’t place that much value on it. I slowly climbed the ranks by improving my tricks, amplitude, and results. I experienced continual success, only peppered with minor setbacks, which served as fuel to my fire and were typically followed by even greater achievement.

Competing allowed me to see all ends of the earth, from North and South America, to many parts of Europe, Asia and even the Middle East. By 2011 I had achieved everything that I had set out to do. I had stood on the top of every international podium, X Games, World Championships, US Open and the like, and when our sport finally got the nod from the International Olympic Committee that ski halfpipe would be added to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014, I had no reason to doubt that I would be there.

Hudak had always used cycling for injury rehab and conditioning, but mountain biking would soon become meaningful on it’s own, and on a number of levels. Photo by Devon Balet Photography

Hudak had always used cycling for injury rehab and conditioning, but mountain biking would soon become meaningful on it’s own, and on a number of levels. Photo by Devon Balet//devonbaletmedia.com

As the light began to flood my eyes, the world around me came into focus, and I realized where I was.

Lying there in the bottom of the halfpipe I knew that something was wrong, something went wrong. When I stood up and gingerly side-slipped to the bottom of the pipe, unable to make a turn, I knew that my journey had come to its end.

At the first Olympic qualifying event for Team USA, I had torn my ACL. Unfortunately, the things that allowed me to naturally improve as a beginner got deeply suppressed by expectations, sponsor obligations and external motivation. I had been living in a tunnel the three years leading up to this injury—the goal was the Olympics, and my love for skiing was no longer the primary drive.

The next two months were a blur, as tears clouded my vision almost daily. My shattered dreams not only broke my heart, but also annihilated my self-identity. If I wasn’t a successful athlete, I wasn’t an athlete at all. While my friends were flying to Sochi for the Olympics, I was in physical therapy. I dragged myself there daily, more out of habit than personal motivation. This injury was not just marking the end of a dream, but the end of a career. At 28 years old I had no idea what was next.

Hudak’s recovery time off skis started in the gym, then on hikes and finally on her mountain bike. The latter would become more than a mean to an end.

Hudak’s recovery time off skis started in the gym, then on hikes and finally on her mountain bike. The latter would become more than a mean to an end.

Over time, a new thought began to emerge: it might be a long time before I can ski again, but biking was just around the corner. It was this thought alone that began pulling me out of bed and getting me to the gym each day—I had emerged from that tunnel where only skiing could make me happy.

I put myself to the grindstone, worked my way off of crutches, gained range-of-motion and strength steadily. The moment my leg made a full revolution on a stationary bike, I could breath again. I started counting down the days until I was cleared to ride a bike. And then, I was.

There was still snow on the ground when I took my bike out for the first time. I had used mountain biking for rehabilitation following knee surgeries in the past—this ACL tear in December marked my eighth knee surgery—but this time, biking felt different.

I would layer on clothing, full-length chamois pants, Under Armour thermal layers, windproof vests and jackets, thick gloves and a Buff under my helmet in order to withstand the 37-degree temps. The trails were silent. I was left with only the sound of my breath, the crunch of frozen dirt beneath my tires and my own voice inside my head. It was out here that I began to find myself.

I always imagined the world to work in the simple way that biking did. A force pressed into the pedal, causing the wheel to rotate and propel me forward—effort put in yielding a positive result. It was so satisfying.

Photo by Devon Balet//devonbaletmedia.com

Photo by Devon Balet//devonbaletmedia.com

The restrictions placed on me in the early stages were intense: I wasn’t allowed to use clipless pedals, I wasn’t supposed to stand up to pedal, and I was directed to remain on dirt roads. Yet somehow, I felt liberated. I was a beginner. There were no expectations, no results to be had, no medals to be won, no cameramen in my face, and I was free to be as good or as bad as I wanted.

Every day on the bike was a learning experience, the results relative to others did not matter. As long as I was improving from yesterday, I was satisfied—and there were infinite ways to improve! Week by week, the restrictions on my riding were lifted and I found myself pedaling out of the tunnel in which I’d lived for the last decade.

It wasn’t long before I was escaping south to St. George every weekend after full weeks of physical therapy in snow covered Park City. I even spent Valentine’s Day in the desert, sharing my intimacy solely with my bike. My bike began to reveal my heart to me. Flowy single-track painted a smile on my face, adrenaline flooded my veins as I worked my way through technical sections; my focus shifted from “being” good to “feeling” good, and the latter often brought the former along with it.

It reminded me of the early days of skiing as a kid, when I would be on the hill from 9-4, obsessed with the way it made me feel. My love for mountain biking and the enjoyment I felt through improving, captivated me—I felt like an athlete again.

Photo by Devon Balet//devonbaletmedia.com

Photo by Devon Balet//devonbaletmedia.com

Letting go of skiing allowed me to divulge myself in the mountain bike world. I initially sought time on my bike as an escape from broken dreams, but quickly began to seek it as therapy. Somehow, my bike offered lessons that couldn’t be learned elsewhere. The joy I received wasn’t attached to some larger goal, but experienced in every moment on the trail…every rock, every berm, every root, every climb was enjoyable, and a victory in itself.

Mountain biking taught me about balance, and showed me how to stay upright when everything beneath you was broken into pieces. I wasn’t beating my head against the wall seeking a solution—I didn’t need to see around every corner to enjoy the ride. In fact, the unknown often made the ride more exciting, and so could it in life.

On my bike, there was no attachment to Olympic dreams, no external factor that could determine the value of what I was doing on my bike. There was nothing to fall short of, to leave me empty handed. I didn’t need a podium or a paycheck to feel satisfied.

The gift was in the process, in the experience, in every pedal stroke, bunny hop, and fast corner. I had struck a balance between hard effort and fun, and suddenly realized I no longer cared about where skiing would take me. Just because I planned to step down from a rigorous, all-encompassing competition schedule, didn’t mean I had to step down from competition entirely. I could continue for the mere sake of enjoying it. And I didn’t need to know where I was heading. That was a freedom I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

Mountain biking gave me skiing back! In a purely physical sense, sure, but also in an emotional and spiritual sense. It did something more than just replace an activity that I once loved—it reminded me of the very reasons that skiing consumed me at the start, allowing me to reignite that passion for skiing. Though I had other things going on in life throughout my competition years, they weren’t my priority. I am a 28 year old woman now, not just a girl—there’s more riding on my shoulders today than there was 10 years ago. Mountain biking showed me that we venture out for an enjoyable experience, so we can come home better equipped to take care of our responsibilities. It provides us with the necessary balance for living a fulfilling life.

As we near the winter months, I find myself restored with newfound passion, love, and joy, and an acute awareness that there is a lot more to life than Olympic dreams. The value of our time spent on bikes and skis, does not rest on what comes out, but on what we put in.

This winter, I will return to the snow and ski in a way I haven’t for more than 15 years—purely from my heart. And having emerged from a decade of living in a tunnel, I will appreciate each turn anew, enjoy being a playful Aunt to my sister’s first-born, a loving and dedicated girlfriend to a very special man, an appreciative and caring daughter to my sick father and my savior of a mother. And will I continue spreading this message of living for the love of it.

Thank you, mountain biking.

About the author: Jen Hudak

Freskiier Jen Hudak is a two-time Superpipe world champion, four-time national champion, and five-time X Games medalist. She’s ridden mountain bikes extensively for injury rehab, training and pleasure. Born and raised in Connecticut, he 2010 ESPY “Best Female Action Sports Athlete” nominee currently lives in Utah near the US Ski Team Facility in Park City where she trains. More info and social media links at jenhudak.com.


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