5 Questions With: Jen Hudak

Jen Hudak in the halfpipe, Park City, Utah.

Photo by: Scott Markewitz

When I think of women who inspire me, I think of women that have overcome adversity, who have gone through hardships and have come on top. One of the women I’ve been following for the past couple of years is American pro skier Jen Hudak. I first heard of her a couple of years ago during a televised ski competition. I’ve since followed her journey at the X Games, US Open, etc. I caught up with her just after her trip to this year’s X Games in Aspen to get her perspective on her sport, her journey and more.

1) What first got you interested in skiing? What is it about the freeski discipline that you like so much?

My family first got me interested in skiing. Both of my parents were avid outdoor enthusiast; they met on a Wasatch Mountain Club hike in Utah in the late 70s and spending time in the mountains remained a priority after my sister and I were born. My father, in particular, LOVED to ski. It was very fortunate because I ended up loving it too. I remember days skiing 9-4 in the rain with my dad. We were obsessed. I don’t remember much about what I felt about skiing at a very early age, but I do recall that my dad tried to put me in ski school when I was about 4, and I never let that happen again. Pretty sure they tried to hold me back too much, I loved just straight lining top-to-bottom runs. When I was 12 I joined the freestyle team at Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vermont. The challenge of moguls captivated me, but when I found the halfpipe, nothing compared. The thrill of dropping in at high speed, feeling the rigidity of the pipe beneath your feet, resisting the G-forces trying to collapse you through transition, and then soaring, weightless and free for just a moment before doing it all over again.

2) How much did premiering women’s halfpipe skiing at the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 impact the sport and your career?

Well, this is an interesting discussion point for me, because I tore my left ACL, meniscus and cartilage at the first Olympic Qualifiers in December 2013 and didn’t go to Sochi. There’s no guarantee I would have qualified for the team regardless, as the US presence is extremely strong and we only had 4 spots. I’m not an Olympian, so it wasn’t so much the premiering of women’s halfpipe that impacted my career, but the work leading up to it. Getting the sport into the Olympics was a goal that I had set in 2003 after competing in the first World Cup for halfpipe skiing. It led me to victories in almost every event there is, two-world championship titles, 4 national championship titles, and 5 x-games medals. Shooting for the moon definitely helped me land amongst the stars.

Despite watching the Olympics from home, while I was rehabbing my knee, it was the most exciting Olympic experience of my life. I took so much pride in watching all of the freeskiing athletes (not just the women) debut our sport on the world stage. It felt really good. In all honesty, I thought the Olympics would have a greater impact on the sport as a whole. Perhaps in a decade, we’ll look back and see it as a pivotal moment, but it seems to be harder for athletes to get companies to financially back their future endeavors than it ever was before. It’s certainly no easier, unless you happened to be the Golden boy or girl that who returned home to adoring fans. And by “golden” I don’t necessarily mean the gold-medal winners, but the ones who captured the media in some unique way. It’s kind of made me question my career-long goal and if it ended up being more detrimental than beneficial… But that’s probably a topic for another day.

3) What was the biggest obstacle you’ve had to face in your career and life thus far and how have you overcome it?

I used to answer this question without skipping a beat and say “injuries,” but I pause a little more today when answering this. It’s not what is inherent in an injury that makes it difficult. It is not the pain that is intolerable, or the time that it takes to rehab the injury, it’s not mentally returning from an injury that is hard. It is the repeat of injuries, the constant beat-down when you’ve just gotten back up. It is what ended my competitive career. I had a very high internal locus of control for the majority of my career. When something went wrong, I believed that I could’ve done something differently to have prevented it, which meant that I could avoid having it happen again in the future. This allowed me to comeback from injuries numerous times, and often, to come back stronger than before.

After enough beat-downs, that perspective changed. I stopped believing that I could prevent bad things from happening, and if you don’t have that belief, you can’t do this sport, at least not successfully or safely. I think I’m still working on overcoming this one. I announced my retirement at the start of this winter, and it hasn’t been easy. My heart still wants it, there’s still a part of me that feels like I was born with a natural talent to do this sport, and if I don’t take it to my ultimate potential, then it reflects as failure. But where do you draw the line between “ultimate potential” and severe, permanent injury or death? I keep telling myself that 8 knee surgeries are enough for a 29-year-old. At this point, I’ve decided that there’s more for me to loose by returning to the sport than there is for me to gain, but that doesn’t make the process much easier. It’s hard to leave something unfinished.

4) You blog regularly and open up about your journey as a freeskier and also as a young woman, why is it important for you to do that?

It is extremely important to me to be open about what I go through in this sport. I think it’s because I can so clearly see how the issues I face in sport, transcend to different aspects of life, they just tend to be more pronounced and dramatic in sport. It’s like turning up the contrast on a photo to pull out more detail. Sharing my experiences is often very cathartic for me as well. I’m better able to move through difficult times when I acknowledge them. Writing about my challenges makes them tangible, digestible and therefore conquerable.

I also recognize that we are all human. We are all so much more alike than we are different, yet we spend all this time trying to differentiate ourselves, to stand-out, to be unique. Sometimes we need the reminder that we’re not alone; other people get you, other people have similar challenges, human struggles, pain, vulnerability, insecurity. We all have dreams & experience fear. I don’t know what happens after this life on earth, so I feel a deep responsibility to make a contribution to this world, to the next generation, whether that be of athletes, politicians, environmental advocates, to encourage others to explore their own potential and passions. We don’t leave this earth with anything, so it feels important to leave my contribution behind.

5) Where would you like to see the sport of freeskiing go in the next five years and what would you like to accomplish personally?

This is a tough question to answer. I don’t like speculating on the direction of the sport, I feel that it limits the possibilities. I never would’ve imagined that athletes would be doing what they’re doing today, especially in slope, so I won’t comment on that. I will say, that I’d like safety to be a higher priority. It seems like there has been a shift toward that this winter. We’ve lost enough of our athletes; we can do better. It’s all about perspective, remembering that there will always be another competition. And, on a general note, I’m an advocate for grabs, style and amplitude, I think that’s the most enjoyable thing to watch and the most digestible for the common man.

Personally, I want to finish school (which is due to happen this fall), begin writing a book, and develop a clear platform for helping athletes, performers and business people recognize and understand their inherent value to optimize their careers. Recognizing how challenging this transition has been, I also want to create a platform to better support athletes through retirement process. It’s so much more than just learning how to create a resume, (though I certainly needed help with that too) but getting athletes to recognize how their strengths and what they’ve learned are relatable to other industries in the “real-world.”

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