When they helicoptered him off the mountain with a shattered leg and a shard of bone sticking out through his calf muscle, the first thing John Kucera said to the attending physiotherapist was, "You make sure they freaking fix this."
Of course, he didn't say freaking. He said the word you'd use if you had just spent 25 minutes with a fractured left leg and no pain killers but were already planning a comeback, assuming everyone did his job and put things back together. The reigning world downhill ski champion and pre-2010 Olympic favourite was already committed to doing whatever was necessary to race again.
What he didn't know that November day in 2009 was how many times he'd have to do it. Had he known, well … He contemplates that as he sits in a neighbourhood coffee shop on a rare day off – no racing, no training, just a little relaxation and reflection.
Alpine skiers carry a personal tale of woe like few other athletes. They crash, they tear things. They ski again. But not many have experienced the series of unfortunate events that dogged the 28-year-old Kucera the last three years. Even fewer have fashioned such soul-stirring comebacks.
That Kucera is racing again is a tribute to doctors, physios, coaches, teammates and family, but mostly to the young man with the titanium spirit. Twice he has broken his left leg. The first was the worst, a compound fracture that left an ugly trail of damage. Then there were the bulging discs in his lower back that required six cortisone injections over four months.
Yet through all the pain and self-doubt, it was late last month that Kucera stood in the start hut at Lake Louise, on the same mountain he had first broken his leg, and marked his World Cup return with a 36th-place finish in the downhill. The next day was even better. He was 14th in the super-G, a result no one in his right mind was expecting so soon and yet there it was – the unthinkable as reality.
"It was hard to keep the tears back," says Alpine Canada coach Peter Bosinger, who had been hired to oversee Kucera's return to snow. "It was one of the most emotional days I've ever experienced as a coach, something you may never see again."
Sitting in the coffee shop, Kucera remembers how he felt.
"That super-G was more like business as usual," he says. "I was really focused on what I wanted to do skiing wise. As we sat there in the finish area, a few more guys came down and I was thinking maybe I could get top 30. To get top 15, it shows me if I clean up some things here and there, I might make the podium again."
Kucera had been crackling with confidence until his 2009 super-G run at Lake Louise took a bobble at Coaches' Corner and sent him cartwheeling into agony. He knew he'd busted up his leg. What he didn't know was to what extent.
"This was not a normal broken leg," says Kent Kobelka, the former Alpine Canada physio who met Kucera when he was flown down by helicopter. "It was a shredded leg. His calf looked like [it had been through] a meat grinder."
Even as he was being taken in for surgery in Banff, Kucera again told Kobelka to ensure the doctors did whatever was necessary. It was no easy task. Dr. Mark Heard had operated on most of the Canadian men's alpine team. What he saw when he looked at Kucera's mangled leg was "as severe as anything I've seen."
"There are three arteries that go into the foot," Heard says. "One of his was totally torn. The other two were working and that was good. There was another athlete, an Austrian [Matthias Lanzinger], who lost his leg due to a severe [fibula, shinbone] accident. John could have lost his foot."
Thirty days after surgery, Kucera started walking around the dining-room table in his Calgary home. Once or twice around was enough to tire him out and make his leg ache. Eventually he built up to 10 times around the table and also rode a stationary bike. Under Kobelka's watch, Kucera began lifting light weights, working on his strength and his ankle's range of motion.
By November of 2010, Kucera was free skiing. Three months later, he had improved enough to be a forerunner at a race in Aspen, Colo. In the midst of his run, he came out of his bindings and crashed. His left leg was broken again.
"Atomic had come out with a new binding and hadn't worked all the bugs out," Kucera recalls. "I came into a turn and walked out of my bindings on my good leg. That [crash] really messes with your head. It takes time to trust your gear again."
Back he went to Heard, who inserted a larger metal rod in Kucera's leg and grafted a piece of hip bone onto the tibia for added strength. The second surgery was simpler, but having to face another round of rehabilitation was "emotionally devastating," Kobelka says. Still, Kucera went at it headlong. He did therapy every day for three hours. He got to the point where he could jump off a table-high platform and land on his left leg without pain.
In October of 2011, an X-ray showed all the bones had healed. Kucera was good to go physically, but mentally wasn't ready to race at the World Cup at Lake Louise. Then his back flared up during giant slalom training. A magnetic resonance imaging test showed an old problem, a bulging L5 and S1 disc, had become worse. Surgery was ruled out in favour of cortisone injections, which allowed Kucera to keep training. Retirement was never an option.
"Would you have kept coming back if you'd known you'd have to do it at least three times?" comes the question.
"There are two reasons to give up," Kucera answers. "Either you're not good enough to keep going, or you don't want to keep doing it. I wasn't there yet."
So he carried on through this past summer until he found himself in the finish area of Lake Louise basking in the triumph of a 14th-place finish that was just what the doctor ordered. Everyone, especially Kucera, is excited, but knows there are still hard days ahead. Results will vary, the mood will change. But for now, the indomitable Kucera is buoyed by faith and loving every minute of it.
"To be away for three years from the World Cup tour, then standing in that start gate again, I'm sure he was nervous," says Alpine Canada president Max Gartner. "But to have that [14th-place] performance shows the amazing person he is. I'm confident if he has a solid season this year he could be there again, and it would be a remarkable story to get to the very top after all that heartbreak."