When Billy Bridges first made the national Para-hockey team back in 1998, players had to buy their own Canada jerseys off the rack at a sporting goods store.
They paid to have their names ironed on the back at the “mom and pop shop,” said Sami Jo Small, a three-time Olympic medallist for Canada’s women’s hockey team, and Bridges’ wife.
“We still have some of those jerseys … the names are peeling off,” she added with a laugh.
Bridges remembers paying out of pocket for national team trips, often stuffing six players into a hotel room. His dad carved his sticks out of tree trunks. He now has a Para stick sponsorship deal.
“Nowadays, everything is taken care of,” Bridges said. “Literally every single thing.”
Bridges and cross-country skiing legend Brian McKeever competed in their sixth Paralympics in Beijing, while Para-hockey player Greg Westlake played in his fifth.
The three are not only some of the world’s greatest Paralympians ever, they’ve also pushed the envelope of Para-sport in Canada, and helped reshape how Canadians and the world view athletes with disabilities.
“When I started, it was a little bit more amateur, people had day jobs,” McKeever said. “There wasn’t a lot of funding and very few of us were, let’s say, full-time professionals.”
The 42-year-old from Canmore, Alta., captured three gold medals in Beijing to cap a spectacular career. With 16 victories, he tied Germany’s Gerd Schoenfelder for the most titles by a male winter Paralympian.
McKeever is retiring after capturing 20 medals over six Games, many with brother Robin as his guide. Robin is the head coach of Canada’s Para Nordic team, and the two shared a long embrace after Brian’s final race Sunday, a sixth-place finish in the open relay.
Brian McKeever said he and his brother are “super proud” about how they pushed Para Nordic skiing.
“The level hasn’t gone that much up necessarily over the years, but it’s gotten way deeper, because now you cannot win without being a full-time professional. We instilled a lot of those values in our teammates as well, that you have to train like the Olympic stream does,” McKeever said.
“Just because we might have some physical challenges doesn’t mean that we can’t train the same hours and have the same dedication.”
McKeever said he wasn’t aware when he embarked on his career that “Para” in Paralympics actually stands for “parallel Games,” and not paraplegic, a common misconception.
“So we also have a bit of a marketing problem,” he said.
McKeever, who has no central vision and only a bit of peripheral vision due to Stargardt’s disease, said a rewarding moment was Taiki Kawayoke becoming Japan’s youngest Winter Paralympic champion at age 21 early in the Games. McKeever had done some technique coaching with the Japanese team when Kawayoke was 12.
“Now he’s in a University ski program, training with their Olympic stream athletes, and the team leader from Japan, who’s been a friend of ours for many years, said, ‘We learned from you guys, that you must train with the best.’”
If McKeever has one regret, it’s not racing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He qualified in the 50-kilometre race but was an alternate on race day, a decision he said was out of his hands. He’s proud of his 21st-place — Canada’s top result — in the men’s 15-kilometre freestyle at the 2007 world championships, for able-bodied athletes.
Westlake, a 35-year-old from Oakville, Ont., is retiring after his fifth Paralympic appearance, and with gold, two silver and a bronze medal.
He’s been a steady voice not just for high performance Paralympic sport, but for sport for all Canadians living with disabilities.
“I visit a lot of hospitals in Ontario, mostly of the GTA Toronto region,” he said. “There’s a whole other side to it, which is just that there’s a lot of people out there living with disabilities that need to feel the benefits of making friends through sport, and playing the game they love and doing it a different way … I’m very passionate about that.”
Westlake, who was born with malformed feet and had both legs amputated below the knee before he was 18 months old, said he made sure to soak up every moment of his final Paralympic appearance.
“I enjoyed watching the Games through the younger guys’ eyes … it’s been really special and really fun for me to be here,” he said. “I left it all out there, there’s not a shift I took off. I got to enjoy every moment, and I can’t say that about some previous Games.”
Bridges, meanwhile, is undecided on his playing future. The 37-year-old would love to continue depending on how his body holds up.
“I want to play as long as I can contribute,” he said. “I never want a free pass. I never want to just be handed a spot, I want to earn it, and I want to be able to contribute to the success of this team.”
While Canadian athletes have helped stretch the envelope of Para sport immensely in the past two decades, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Canada’s Olympic athletes who won medals in either the Tokyo or Beijing Games were financially rewarded — $20,000 for a gold, $15,000 for a silver and $10,000 for a bronze. Paralympic medallists received no medal bonuses.
“It’s long overdue,” said Josh Dueck, Canada’s chef de mission in Beijing and a three-time Paralympic medallist in sit-skiing. “I feel like that point of reckoning will happen in the next couple years. I’ll believe it when I see it, when it’s in writing, but I really do feel that some of the conversations that are being had behind the scenes is that everybody’s aware that it is past due.”
Bridges, who has spina bifida, said the addition of women’s Para hockey is also long overdue. It’s a big reason for the huge gender gap in Winter Paralympic Games that saw women comprise just 24 per cent of the 564 international athletes competing.
Bridges, a native of Kensington, P.E.I. — he and Small have a six-year-old daughter named Kensi for his hometown — said when he first played the game in 1995, half of his teammates were girls.
“It’s time, holy cow,” he said. “I know that hundreds, or thousands of women are playing across the world. I know that if they make a women’s tournament at the Paralympic Games, teams will show up. I know that countries like China, they’re not going to turn down an opportunity to win the medal. And not make a team. There’s so many chicken-and-the-egg arguments and I’m sick of it.
“I was raised by two moms, women’s sport has always been my favourite. And there’s no time like the present to get a women’s division in world championships, Paralympics.”
Small holds a girls’ hockey camp in her hometown in Winnipeg every year. They bring along sleds, and Bridges coaches a Para hockey session with the girls.
“The difference that makes in those young girls’ lives, they then expose the kids at their school that might have a disability, to Para sport,” Small said. “He just has become this iconic figure to so many kids who see him as an incredible hockey player, not as somebody confined to a wheelchair.
“I’m proud of so many things about him,” she added. “But it’s just that daily mindset shift I see even when we go to the grocery store, or when I see him get on the ice with some kids who have never seen (Para hockey) before. That to me is just so special.”
—Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press