CANMORE – There are at least 25 different types of emotions humans feel on any given day, and, during the Paralympics, Brittany Hudak might have tapped into every single one.
The Canadian Para nordic skier, now a three-time Paralympics bronze medallist, is coming off her most successful Winter Paralympic Games with two podiums and six top 10s from March 5-13 in Beijing.
Back home in Canmore and recovering from jet lag, the elite 28-year-old skier said she is gratified with the results. But still, being engaged in a constant pursuit of excellence, there is a sense that an extra-kick might have been missing in China.
“I felt like, unfortunately, I raced into shape at the Games,” said Hudak. “It’s something our team has talked about. It was tough because the first race usually goes one of two ways: you know it’s gonna be a really great day or sometimes it doesn’t go as planned and I don’t think my body was feeling as good as I was hoping it was going to.”
Hudak won bronze medals in the individual biathlon and long distance cross country classic, and she was always a fiery battle for medals at her third Paralympics.
In the biathlon race, Hudak shot 18-for-20 in what she called a memorable day. It was the same race she took bronze in four years ago in PyeongChang. Times have changed in four years and competition is at its best ever, which Hudak loves.
But there's a different shade of medal eluding the trophy case of the pride of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
“If I shot clean I would have been in the running for a gold medal, and that’s really what I’m after: just having that race that is, I guess, what is an excellent day for me,” Hudak said.
“At the end of the day, I’m definitely proud of what I’ve accomplished, but yet, still hungry for more – as usual.”
Taking place at the Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre in China, the Canadian Para Nordic Ski team won 14 medals (six gold, two silver, six bronze) at the Paralympics.
The Canadians garnered attention after choosing to rock T-shirts while competing, but it wasn’t so much about showing off the guns and more about regulating heat.
After day one, which was the chilliest race day in Beijing, temperatures rose in the pluses for a warm winter environment. Canadian Collin Cameron was the first to ditch the long sleeves on day two for something more refreshing. The sit-skier powered to bronze in his sleeveless attire and the breezy trend was born.
“There’s this talk of, ‘well, let’s be like Collin and wear a T-shirt and maybe we’ll get on the podium, too’. So it was a bit of a running joke,” said Hudak with a laugh. “It was so typical of Canadians to wear a T-shirt when it’s still technically winter. It drew a bit of attention, but it was funny to us, like, if you race in a T-shirt you might hit a podium.”
Even TV commentators frequently commented on the "tough Canadians", and the Paralympic Games got in on the fun with a YouTube video of Cameron.
So how many medals did sleeveless Canucks win in Beijing? Eight (three gold, silver, four bronze) of the Nordic team’s 14.
The warmer weather brought a fun bonding aspect, but out on the course, it made for a slushy, mashed potato-like snow that was slow and less than ideal for racing.
“When we first arrived, some of my skis weren’t running as fast as I would have liked,” said Hudak. “In particular, ones I thought would be really good in the snow conditions just weren’t, so, getting there and doing ski testing and playing around in those things plays a factor in your confidence.”
In the best of years, dealing with inconsistent weather patterns would have been the only worry for athletes.
But Beijing already had one fuse connected to a bomb in a global pandemic threatening to shut everything down, and then two weeks prior to the Games, another fuse was added when Russian and Belarusian militaries invaded Ukraine.
Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from the Paralympics by the International Paralympic Committee, as a result, and Ukraine remained, but their heartbreak was felt by everyone.
There are many expectations, surprises and adjustments athletes must prepare for at a major sporting event, but Beijing was another degree.
“The best way to describe it – I’m kind of laughing because I felt these Games were the most emotional times – is usually it’s a lot of ups and downs,” said Hudak.
“It’s always so interesting, the different emotions you feel in such a short amount of time and knowing it’s such a short window to be at your best and perform.
“After I finished the 15km classic, I was so emotional after that one because I was happy that it was a medal and I was happy that my teammate [Natalie Wilkie] won, but then I was also disappointed with a bronze medal."
Hudak finished her Beijing Paralympics campaign off in the open relay with Brian McKeever and guide Russell Kennedy. The team finished sixth place.
McKeever, with guides Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa, had won a historic 16th gold medal in Beijing a day earlier, tying for most ever won at the Winter Paralympics.
Hudak was nervous for that one, she admitted – after all, McKeever is an athlete she looked up to and this was his final race. At the finish line, the entire Para Nordic Ski team greeted McKeever at his final Paralympics.
It was a heartfelt moment for the team.
“Everyone needed to keep their glasses on because everyone was getting teary eyed and you see Brian kind of choking up as well, so that was a huge emotional day,” Hudak said.
With the off-season approaching, and another four-year cycle set to begin, there will be fewer familiar faces around. However, after starting the season on fire with top results at the Canmore world cup, Hudak knows on any given day, gold awaits.