Hudec meets with those less fortunate

08 June 2012 11:45

Jan Hudec made his Olympic debut at the Vancouver Games in 2010, but he returned to the city this week on a very different mission that left him feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunities he has as a full-time athlete.

The 30-year-old from Calgary, Alta., toured Vancouver, B.C.’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood Wednesday as part of a program run by the Odd Squad Production Society, a non-profit organization set up by retired and current Vancouver police officers to educate and empower youth. 

Hudec and four national team speedskaters – Jamie Gregg, Christine Nesbitt, Cindy Klassen and Brittany Schussler – spent several hours talking to homeless people and those suffering from addictions, sharing stories about life and learning about how they ended up where they are today.

“We talked about where they came from, what things were like growing up,” Hudec said. “We asked some pretty direct questions, like whether they even wanted to get clean. It was interesting. 

“One of the answers I came away with was that sometimes people get into situations that they don’t think they can get out of any more.”

Hudec has an interesting life story himself, having fled his Czech homeland with his parents when he was a child. After spending time in a German refugee camp, his family eventually settled in Alberta. Hudec went on to become a national-team skier and in 2011-12 he was the top-performing Canadian alpine skier on the World Cup circuit.

“It was interesting to see how open they were. They were just happy to have someone to talk to,” Hudec said of the people he met on the street. “Mark (one of the program staff) put it perfectly when he said the people we met are people just like you and me who made a couple of life-changing decisions and found themselves almost lost or unable to come back. 

“Some of them grew up in fairly healthy homes and got in with the wrong crowd and ended up in this spiral. Addictions don’t discriminate.”

Derek Robinson, a sports psychologist who works with the men’s alpine team and the national speedskating team, came up with the idea of bringing some Olympians to the Downtown Eastside and introducing them to the Odd Squad program.

“I work with the Red Deer Rebels (Western Hockey League team) and they’ve been doing these visits for a number of years,” said Robinson. “I thought it would be a good opportunity for the athletes to come down here. It definitely opens minds and helps people gain understanding.” 

Chris Graham, a retired police officer and Odd Squad program co-ordinator, took the athletes through an introductory session in the classroom before touring the neighbourhood. His group’s mandate is to “design programs that honour and motivate youth, encourage them to set positive goals, lay their own path and stay on track by keeping drug-free for a long and healthy life.”

“It was a bit of an eye-opener for the athletes. Jan was really involved and interested in what was happening,” Graham said. “This neighbourhood is not very accessible, except when you tell them you are Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins, or an (Olympian), and suddenly they open up. 

“A guy like Jan is exposed to a lot of people who have a lot of money orare affluent and he realizes how easy it would be to fall into this life of despair. There are a lot of people down here who had big careers, even athletes who got injured and maybe got addicted to (painkillers).

“We’d like to work together with the athletes to create some corporate sponsorship and develop programs where they go into schools. Most of these athletes already do that and the message is similar – it’s about making good choices and being involved in athletics or healthy lifestyles.”

Hudec, said that as a father – he has a young son, Oaklee – the importance of making good choices hit home particularly hard. 

“It’s important not to turn a blind eye to society and the reality of what’s going on so close to home. Sometimes you can live such a sheltered life,” Hudec said. “Obviously, having a son I think about it more and more.”

Hudec, who was due to attend an Odd Squad fundraising dinner at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Thursday night, said his two-day visit has already made a lasting impression on him. 

“To see people on a bad trip or whatever, having a hard time coping with being on the streets, it was definitely humbling,” Hudec said.

“At first they didn’t know who we were but some of the (staff) told them we are Olympic athletes. They wished us good luck at the Olympics – it was amazing. 

“This one woman we met, she was a super nice lady. It’s amazing how much people will talk to you if you look approachable.

“This is going to stay with me forever.”

For more information about the Odd Squad Production Society, visit their website at http://oddsquad.com.