Veteran winter athlete Billy Bridges is enjoying the new challenges of summer sports

After nearly three decades of competing at the sport’s highest level, Billy Bridges feels like a rookie again.

And he says he’s never felt so good.

Bridges, 39, is one of the country’s most decorated Paralympians, having competed in six Para ice hockey games for Canada starting in 2000 when he was just 16 years old.

He has won countless world championships, four Paralympic medals, including gold in 2006, and is widely regarded as one of the most successful para-hockey players ever to play the sport.

Twenty-five years after making his first national ice hockey debut as a para-hockey player, Bridges is poised to make his Parapan Am Games debut as a member of Canada’s summer sports team, this time competing in the shot put and javelin.

“Being able to represent Canada in para sport has been a lifelong dream of mine since I was 14,” Bridges told CBC Sports in Santiago. “When I got that call, I felt like I was 14 years old again, in my kitchen on the phone from the coach I used to play on the hockey team. I’m a rookie again and I love it.”

WATCH | Billy Bridges’ trip to the 2023 Parapan Am Games:

Paralympian Billy Bridges’ journey to compete at the 2023 Parapan Am Games.

Featured videoBilly Bridges is a Paralympic gold medalist in sled hockey for Canada. This is his journey to compete in the 2023 Parapan American Games in javelin and shot put.

The Paralympian from Summerside, PEI, competes in the shot put on Wednesday before heading to his favorite event, the javelin, on Thursday.

He says it was eight years ago when his wife, former hockey goaltender Sami Jo Small, first floated the idea that he might be able to switch from the rink to track and field.

“I’ve always been inspired by my wife, and she threw the javelin and discus at Stanford (University),” Bridges said. “One of our first trips together was to Stanford to see the facilities. I’ve always loved watching field events and that was something I wanted to try.”

Small competed at Stanford in the discus, hammer and javelin, but is best known for being an Olympic and four-time world champion, goaltender for the Canadian women’s ice hockey team.

It’s an understatement to say the competitive juices run in their household, and there have been plenty of coaching sessions between Bridges and Small in the run-up to the Parapan Am Games.

Three pairs of hockey players fight for the puck.
Canada’s Billy Bridges fights for the puck against South Korea’s Cho Young-jae, left, and Lee Jong-kyung during their pair’s ice hockey semifinal match at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara) (Associated Press)

“He’s never been used to one-on-one coaching. It’s been a process for us and even though I have the knowledge of pitching, I try to leave it to the experts and just try to stay encouraging and positive,” Small said. “I say I’m trying, but I often interject with ‘maybe try this’ or ‘have you thought about that one?’ I had to learn to choose my time.”

Bridges is open to any feedback from his wife.

“She’s just amazing. Her technical mind with throws is amazing,” he said. “Her first multi-sport games were at the Junior Pan Am Games in Santiago in the javelin. It really came full circle.”

“I’m so proud of him for all the effort he put into this,” Small said. “Who else can pick up a brand new sport and excel on the world stage? He’s so incredibly talented.”

Ahead of the trip, Bridges looked for some last-minute inspiration. That’s when he decided to look for something that would make him feel connected to Sami Jo while competing.

“I broke into Sam’s closet and stole her javelin shoes that she had at Stanford and hopefully they’ll bring me some luck and hopefully I can throw half as far as her,” Bridges said.

And Small added a little of her own to make sure her husband knew she was him while competing.

On a pole attached to Bridges’ chair, which he holds while throwing the javelin, are photos of Sami Jo and their daughter, as well as the family dog.

Photographs of the owner, a young girl and a dog are shown taped to a pole, with a green grass field plus tents and buildings in the background.
Photos adorn the column (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

Bridges and Small are on this trip together and both say they get a lot out of it.

“I like that pitching has exposed him to even more of my world,” Small said. “My former life before hockey took over. I was able to reconnect with the pitching community and reunite with my former coaches and so many great friends.”

‘The best recruit you could ever wish for’

Earlier this week, Bridges was doing his final workouts with trainer Kim Cousins ​​before heading to the competition.

Cousins ​​says there are so many things about Bridges that make him an elite athlete that he believes will excel in field sports.

“Having Billy around is the best rookie you could ask for,” Cousins ​​said​​​​. “He’s like a sponge. We have to hold on because he just wants to be hard, but the event he’s working on, harder isn’t always better. But he’s a great learner.”

Choosing a new sport is nothing new for Bridges. He also played professional wheelchair basketball in Spain and helped Canada win world junior wheelchair basketball gold in 2001.

Bridges says Cousins ​​and Richard Parkinson, who coaches Canadian shot putter Sarah Mitton, have been extremely valuable in his development in both the javelin and shot put.

“They’ve been such amazing coaches and they’ve helped me jump right into this,” Bridges said. “There’s a steep learning curve, but I’m surrounded by amazing people. There’s something about hockey that makes me want to teach myself to get the most out of myself and my body, and that obviously applies to any sport. I’m getting better and better again. I know I’m going to do it. .”

Cousins ​​says Bridges has a deep level of humility that has allowed him to be highly responsive to feedback as he develops in these sports.

“He allows himself to be vulnerable. And to make mistakes and gather information. And to be patient,” Cousins ​​said​​​​. “How much fun is this? That’s what we hope for, our para athletes competing their whole lives. There are so many other sports they can come in and be really positive members.”

And so it goes, to another Games for Canada, so proudly wearing the maple leaf at another international event.

Bridges can barely contain his emotions and is once again grateful to everyone who supported him on his way.

“The support that every Canadian athlete feels is second to none. Having that support is why I do it and the only way I can do it,” he said.

“To do my best, to work as hard as I can, is the only way I can thank all those people who helped me get here.”

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