The fight didn’t last long. Three, maybe four, punches at most.
Then the two combatants looked at each other and started laughing.
Brad Bowden and Billy Bridges have been teammates on Canada’s National Sledge Team for 15 years and friends for even longer.
“You got to separate your personal life from your athletic mindset,” Bowden says when recalling the tryout camp where he and his best friend temporarily dropped the gloves. “It’s good that we can go toe to toe, but we can also get off the ice and pick up where we left off as far as our friendship goes.”
The friendship goes back to the mid-1990s and Easter Seals camp at Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario, when Bridges would follow Bowden out to the baseball diamond, both boys forgoing nap time for extra play time. (The adults couldn’t have been too upset – the two would later be featured in a commercial).
Bowden’s grandmother and Bridges’ mom were both eager to see their boys stay active and soon had them playing basketball together.
They won gold together at the 1999 Canada Games; two years later they won gold at the world junior wheelchair basketball championship. Bowden would even go on to win gold at the 2004 Paralympic Summer Games.
When they were later introduced to sledge hockey, it was the perfect match, says Bowden. Other than the fact that you’re sitting down, the sport is the same as the able-bodied version – full contact welcome.
Underneath their camaraderie on the court and ice laid a competitive fire. “As kids, Brad and I were competitive with everything,” says Bridges. Playing makeshift hockey with two spoons and a tennis ball in the hall was one favourite activity, he says. “We’ve even had some pretty epic Nerf gun fights in hotel rooms when we used to travel for basketball.”
Bowden credits that friendly rivalry for pushing them to become the players they are now. “As strong as our friendship was, we were also the most competitive against each other. We pushed each other and tried to one up the other.” If Bridges rolled his blades in close, Bowden would slide in even tighter to show he wasn’t going to back away.
Eventually they grew out of that adolescence antagonism. Bowden says the turning point came in their late teens when they realized they could accomplish more together than apart. “We had a heart-to-heart conversation and said that instead of trying to one up each other we wanted to one up the rest of the world instead.”
In the years since they’ve won three IPC Sledge World Hockey Championship gold medals, and gold at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games.
Bridges is recognized as one of the best pure scorers in the world; Bowden, as a skilled forward and playmaker. And each appreciates what the other brings to the ice.
“Brad is a goal scorer’s best friend,” says Bridges. “He is the Joe Thornton of sledge hockey. His playmaking ability and agility is second-to-none. But he also has the ability to snipe mid-stride from anywhere.” Bridges says he’d love to have Bowden’s vision and speed with the puck.
“Billy’s just a big ball of raw talent,” says Bowden. “He can create opportunity for himself out of nothing. He’s one of the most aggressive, physical and hard-hitting players I’ve ever played against. It’s not fun to get hit by that guy.” And his shot is also something to be admired – Bridges’ one-handed wrister has hit 80 miles per hour.
Conversations about taking on the world have given way to talks about marriage, family and kids, as the past few years have seen the duo simultaneously experience life’s transitions and milestone moments.
On July 1, 2011, Bridges tied the knot with former National Women’s Team goaltender Sami Jo Small, herself an Olympic champion. Bowden was his best man.
When Bowden married his girlfriend, Shanna, the next year, it was Bridges’ turn to make a speech. “He made a comment about me being very down-to-earth and what you see is what you get,” Bowden remembers. “It was very touching to hear him speak from the heart because we don’t pump each other’s tires up too much.”
As high-performance athletes, players often spend as much, if not more, time with their teammates than with their families, especially during a Paralympic year. “When I’m on the road, it’s almost like I’ve got a family member who’s always there, which makes me feel even more at home when I’m away,” says Bowden.
For now both have taken time away from their work lives – Bridges is studying English literature at the University of Toronto; Bowden just completed the graphic design program at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont. – to focus on the ultimate athletic prize.
Canada’s National Sledge Team finds itself in the same situation as it did four years ago in Vancouver – going to the Paralympics on the heels of double gold by the men’s and women’s teams at the Olympics. The team finished a disappointing fourth in 2010, and Bowden and Bridges are eager to re-create the happier ending from Torino.
For Bridges, competing for his country beside his best friend is an opportunity he cherishes. Both men want to help complete the gold medal trifecta not only for their country but for each other. Winning the Paralympics once was incredible, says Bowden, and would be even more so now with the support Canadians show to disabled sports. “I want to make everybody proud,” he says. “I want to feel that [emotion from 2006] with my teammates again. I want to share it with my family. And I want to share it with Billy.”