Decorated para hockey player Billy Bridges is about to make his international debut in summer sport. Bridges will throw javelin and shot put in the Parapan American Games.
The six-time Canadian hockey Paralympian — and winner of four medals including gold — has flipped from team sport on ice to an individual field event.
"So new. I feel like such a rookie," Bridges told The Canadian Press.
The 2023 Parapan American Games open Friday in Santiago, Chile on the heels of the Pan American Games in that city. A Canadian team of almost 500 athletes won 164 medals, including 46 gold, in the Pan Am Games that closed Nov. 5.
Bridges is among 140 Canadian para athletes competing in 14 sports — track and field, swimming, cycling, rugby, basketball, tennis, shooting, judo, badminton, boccia, table tennis, soccer, goalball and archery — until Nov. 26.
Preliminary table tennis competition got underway Thursday ahead of Friday's opening ceremonies at Estadio Nacional.
Bridges was both a wheelchair basketball player and a thrower early in his athletic life before hockey became his full-time sport. He's Canada's all-time para hockey scoring leader with 199 goals in 227 assists in 251 career games.
The competitive fire still burning in the 39-year-old from Summerside, P.E.I., rekindled his interest in the throwing arts.
His wife Sami Jo Small is a former goaltender for the national women's hockey team, but she also threw javelin and discus at Stanford where she studied mechanical engineering.
"Last year, when I kind of stepped away from hockey, I needed something and I wasn't ready to become a real person and get a real job yet," Bridges said.
"It came back to mind about throwing. In the Tokyo Olympics that just passed, I love watching the throwers and my wife being a well-established and well-accomplished thrower, I've become very interested in it."
Athletics Canada connected Bridges with throwing coach Richard Parkinson, who also coaches world silver medallist shot-putter Sarah Mitton in Toronto. Bridges' wife has also accelerated his throwing career.
"Sami has helped me so much with it for sure. I got the news I was on the Parapan Am team literally less than 24 hours before we were about fly to Stanford for a reunion she's having there. She was the first one to suggest that 'we're packing your throwing stuff,'" Bridges said.
"When you're a wheelchair-bound seated thrower, you can't do it for yourself. You need to have someone retrieve for you all the time. She's done that many, many times for me and has definitely tried to help me with my technique as much as a husband is willing to listen I guess."
Bridges' strength is javelin, but he's also working toward a Paralympic qualifying standard in shot put. Javelin isn't competed in his seated throwing classification of 55 in the Paralympics, although it is at the Parapan Am Games.
"My distances are in the top five. I'd love to come out of Santiago with a medal in that for sure," Bridges said. "Being part of a team sport my entire life, I'd love to be able to get a medal for Canada's team, to be able to help our medal run.
"Also to kind of justify all the effort and work that so many people at Athletics Canada have been doing to include me and bring me into their family. I'd love to be able to win a medal for them and show I'm serious about it and I do want to compete.
"I'm a young gun in the javelin world. I don't want to do it for just one competition. I want to see if I can make another career."
Bridges is among seven athletes in Santiago who have represented Canada in another sport at the Paralympics or Parapan Am Games.
Canada's para team claimed 60 medals, including 17 gold, in 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The 2023 edition features 64 athletes who have already competed in a Paralympic Games, including 18 Paralympic medallists.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press