After nearly three decades of competing at the highest level of the sport, Billy Bridges feels like a beginner again.
He says he has never felt anything like this.
Bridges, 39, is one of the country’s most decorated Paralympic athletes, having competed in six Para Ice Hockey Canada games 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 Paralympic hockey players to ever play the sport.
Twenty-five years after making his first national ice team as a para hockey player, Bridges is preparing to make his Parapan Am Games debut as a member of Team Canada in summer sports, this time competing in the shot put and javelin.
“Being able to represent Canada in Paralympic sports has been my life’s dream since I was 14 years old,” Bridges told CBC Sports in Santiago. “Getting that call made me feel like I was 14 again, and in my kitchen getting a phone call from the coach I hired for the hockey team. I’m a rookie again and I love it.”
watched Billy Bridges’ Journey to the 2023 Parapan Am Games:
The Paralympian from Summerside, Prince Edward Island, 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 National Hockey League goalie Sammy Joe Small, first planted the idea that maybe he could switch from rink to track and field.
“I’ve always been inspired by my wife, who threw the javelin and discus at Stanford [University]Bridges said. “One of the first trips we took together was to visit Stanford University to see the facilities. “I always loved watching field events and it was something I wanted to try.”
At Stanford, Small competed in the discus, hammer throw, and javelin, but is best known as an Olympic champion and four-time world champion goaltender for the Canadian women’s national hockey team.
To say competitive juices flow in their family is an understatement, and there have been many training sessions between Bridges and Small in the lead-up to the Parapan Am Games.
“He was never used to individual training,” Small said. “It’s been a process for us and even though I have the knowledge of throwing, I try to leave it to the experts and just try to stay encouraging and positive.” “I say I’m trying, but I often find myself interrupting with, ‘Maybe I’ll try that’ or ‘Have you thought about that?’ I’ve had to learn how to choose my times.”
Bridges open to any and all feedback from his wife.
“She’s amazing. Her artistic mind on throws is amazing,” he said. “Her first multisport was at the Junior Pan Am Games in Santiago for the javelin. She really came full circle.”
“I’m so proud of him for all the hard work he put into this,” Small said. “Who else could take on a new sport and excel on the world stage? He’s so talented.”
Before the trip, Bridges was looking for some last-minute inspiration. That’s when he decided to look for something that would make him feel connected to Sammy Jo while competing.
“I raided Sammy’s closet and stole her javelin shoes that she had at Stanford,” Bridges said. “I hope it brings me some good luck, and I hope I can throw half as far as she can.”
Small added her own little touch to make sure her husband also knew it was him during the competition.
On the pole attached to Bridges’ chair, which he carries while throwing the javelin, are photos of Sammy Jo and their daughter, as well as the family dog.
Bridges and Small are on this journey together and both say they get a lot out of it.
“I love that throwing has exposed him to more of my world,” Small said. “My old life before hockey took over. I was able to reconnect with the hurling community and reunite with my former coaches and many great friends.”
“The best starter you could ever ask for.”
Earlier in the week, Bridges was getting some final workouts with coach Kim Cousins before competing.
Cousins says there are many things about Bridges that make him an elite athlete who she believes will excel in field sports.
“Having Billy is the best rookie you could ever ask for,” Cousins said. “He’s like a sponge. We have to hold on because he just wants to try harder, but the event he’s working hard on isn’t always better. But he’s a great learner.”
Taking up a new sport is nothing new for Bridges. He also played wheelchair basketball professionally in Spain and helped Canada win the gold medal in junior wheelchair basketball in 2001.
Bridges says Cousins and Richard Parkinson, who coaches Canadian shot putter Sarah Mitton, have been invaluable to his progress in both the javelin and shot put.
“They were great coaches and helped me jump into it right away,” Bridges said. “There’s a steep learning curve but I’m surrounded by great people. There’s something about hockey that has made me learn how to get the most out of myself and my body and obviously that translates to any sport. I’m working my way back up and I know I will.”
Cousins says Bridges has a deep level of humility that has allowed him to be very receptive to feedback as he has grown in these sports.
“He allows himself to be vulnerable. To make mistakes and collect data. To be patient,” Cousins said. “How much fun can this be? That’s what we’re hoping for, that our special needs athletes will compete for life. There are so many other sports they can join and be really positive members of.”
And here he goes to another Canada Games, proudly wearing a maple leaf at another international event.
Bridges can barely contain his emotions and once again thanks everyone who has supported him throughout his journey.
“The support any Canadian athlete feels is unparalleled. Having that support is the reason I do this and the only way I can do it,” he said.
“Doing my best, working as hard as I can, is the only way I can thank all these people who helped me get here.”