Mississauga native Brad Bowden was born with Sacaral Agenesis, a disorder in which there is an abnormal fetal development of the lower spine. Bowden is one of few Paralympic athletes to win both a Paralympic gold medal in both summer and winter games for team Canada in sledge hockey and wheel chair basketball. At 31, Brad's competitive edge has him reaching for greater heights with the power of hard work and self-belief.
UHA: Nice to hear from you again Brad, let's get the clock started right away. Tell us a bit about your background and upbringing for those who are unfamiliar about your story.
Brad: I was born in Mississauga, Ontario and ended up being taken care of by my Grandparents when I was very young. My mother was very young when she had me and was unable to manage the challenges that came with raising a disabled child, onto of that my father was an alcoholic so he was never around to pull his load either, so my Grandparents decided to take custody of me and we ended up moving out to a small village in-between Orangeville and Fergus called Orton. My Grandfather drove truck for over 30 years, and then worked construction for many more, and my Grandmother (who passed away in ’06) used to be a key punch operator for Mr. Christie’s. When they took custody of me she ended up quitting her job to raise me full-time while my Grandfather continued on working construction to make sure the bills were getting paid. As an only child being raised by my Grandparents you could say I was somewhat spoiled but even though I was spoiled rotten sometimes they still found a way to make sure I was capable of taking care of myself if something were to ever happen to them.
UHA: At what point were you introduced to sledge hockey?
Brad: I used to dream of playing in the NHL for the Leafs, but as time went on and I became more aware of how the world worked, I realized that my NHL dreams would never come to fruition, so my Grandmother saw that disappointing moment in my life when I realized that and ended up looking around for something else I could do to compete, which lead me to a wheelchair basketball program that was run out of Brampton. Wheelchair basketball is somewhat of a gateway sport for disabled sports, so through that I ended up finding out about a Kitchener program that offered many other sports to play, and that’s how I became involved in sledge hockey. Although I was never big on playing a disabled sport (because I came from a small area, and was never really made to feel any different from any of the other kids) I ended up falling in love with sledge hockey, the freedom and speed of the sport really hooked me. It was also a big eye opener for me being around other children who were dealing with similar disabilities, and soon I realized there was nothing really different about anyone else who was disabled. Hockey is my true passion though, so even though I was very involved in many sports as a child, I gravitated toward sledge because in my eyes, it was pretty much the exact same as stand-up hockey. The full contact and freedom of being on the ice really drew me in, plus I am Canadian so it’s in my DNA to want to be on the ice.
UHA: Was there anybody outside of your family circle who inspired you to take sports to the next level?
Brad: Firstly my Grandparents for believing that I would fall in love with sledge hockey. Secondly, Patrick Anderson would also have to be one of those people. He is known as being the best wheelchair basketball player in the world, I was lucky enough to get to watch him play/practice as a kid. He was a very good role model for us kids to watch because he was one of the hardest working athletes and where else would you find someone to set the perfect example of how to achieve greatness other than by watching one of the greats. I am grateful to have had the chance to see him in action and see what he put into everything, it really set the bar high in my mind for what was expected of me if I wanted to become an elite athlete. Lastly, my best friend Billy Bridges is a major contributor to why I was pushed so hard. He was not only my best friend on the Kitchener team we played for but he was my toughest competitor and we always used to push each other to the edge all the time as kids; if I had two goals in a game, he would want three so we always had that pushing us, until eventually we looked at each other and realized we had pushed each other so much we developed into very skilled players on the national team. Everyone should have a person like Billy to push them.
UHA: Aside from professional sports did you aspire to pursue other careers as a child?
Brad: I always dreamed about becoming a cop. I loved watching cop shows on television, and I was always very into watching shows about superheroes, so I just wanted to do good in the world like the characters I used to watch on television. Looking back I never even had the slightest idea of where my life was going to take me, but I would have to credit a lot of people for pushing me forward down this amazing path which has given me so many great opportunities and helped me build a life for myself.
UHA: How did growing up with your condition effect your everyday life?
Brad: I never really had much of a problem dealing with my disability as a child because I went to school in a small town where I was the only kid who was in a wheelchair. So I don’t think many of the other kids even realized that I was anything different, since I had always been in their lives growing up. I had insecurities as I was growing up once I got into high school and wanted to start making more of an impression with girls and so fourth, but those typically seem to come along with the territory of being a teenager. I guess one of the biggest challenges usually came from not really being able to let loose with my friends in gym class, and compete like I knew I could. I was a sports addict and would sometimes sit in the corner at gym class and think to myself “If these guys were in chairs, or sledges I would tear them up.” It’s tough because you go from being a pretty competitive athlete on the weekends, and then sit in a gym and feel helpless when it would come to competing with my high school classmates. Aside from that I really would have to say I had it pretty good growing up, everyone was very understanding and tried their best to include me in everything that was going on. No one ever made me feel like I didn’t belong, or made me feel like an outcast. I had a great childhood.
UHA: Tell us about what is was like to represent Team Canada on a world stage at 15 years old?
Brad: Something that most people don’t know about my journey onto the world stage is that I never made the team my first time around. I was chosen as an alternate after my first tryout and shortly after they named the team one of the veteran players announced his decision to retire to spend time with his family. They ended up calling me up and that’s how I got my chance. My mindset was this: Always prove to the coaches that they can’t afford to not play you. I felt like there were too many people that were looking at me like I was merely an alternate that got lucky; I don’t like handouts so I wanted to show them every time I was on ice that they made a mistake in the beginning. It has always stuck with me, even up until this day I still go out and play to be effective and to help my team win, I know I have the power and skill to help my teammates play better as well as do what I have to do when things get tough. Now as a leader on the team, whenever a new player comes up to me for advice on what to do, I tell them to go out and do something that helps the team win, show them that they need a player like you.
UHA: Some may not know this about you but you are one of few athletes who won Gold medals for Canada in both sledge hockey and wheel chair basketball. Tell us about the balance between the two sports with training and staying focused with each sport at a particular time.
Brad: It was an unreal experience to accomplish what I have in two sports. Although it was a bit stressful balancing two teams and trying to make sure I was putting everything into both sports, I feel like it was all worth it. I feel like it was important to see how far I could take things, I felt like even though I got cut from the basketball team in 2008, all of those drives to practices and time spent in the gym paid off in the end. I know how much time and money my Grandparents put into letting me play both sports, and I am glad I have something to show for it.
UHA: Outside of the rink or basketball court where could one find you?
Brad: I love going to movies, concerts or just spending time with friends at a pub. I also like just sitting around home playing video games or working away on personal design projects. Right now my new job takes up most of my time though. I work for a non-for-profit organization called 'All Sports All People' and I get to help develop inclusive sports programs for children with physical and developmental disabilities. It’s been a really big source of energy and passion for me lately. A lot of my time is spent training for hockey so when I have time I just relax when I get home.
UHA: How has Unsung Hero Apparel inspired your most recent journey and where would you like to see the brand in 5 years?
Brad: I was lucky enough to hang around with the UHA team a long time ago and something that really stuck with me was how you guys are really on a mission. Whether it be to raising money for a worthy cause like a charity or a child, or to motivate others to do the same, you guys like to make positive impacts in people's lives. I follow your Instagram feed and see so many people doing great things for others wearing your brand and it seems like making a difference has almost become a trademark for UHA. I would like to see it become more available across Canada for people to purchase, because you guys truly have some nice stuff and what it represents is very powerful. Too many people wear certain brands to look cool and to fit in but when I see someone wearing an UHA shirt or hat I know that they really are someone who wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I love that it’s called Unsung Hero because we can all think of a few heroes in our lives that helped us get to where we are.
UHA: What's your favourite product at the moment?
Brad: My favourite would have to be the 'Taped' design. As a graphic designer I find it really sharp. You guys have some great people designing your stuff!
UHA: Where are you looking for personal growth this year? What's on the horizon for hockey/basketball?
Brad: My basketball career may be over for good since it’s just been too much to balance the two in the past and I’m working full-time now. I think as far as personal growth goes I’m looking to try to fit into our new team the best I can and try to maintain my ability to contribute to our team success. I’m not getting any younger and it’s a different world for me. I need to make sure I am doing what I can to keep ahead of the curve. As of right now my main focus is looking toward the World Championships in Buffalo in April. I have a sour taste in my mouth from our Sochi 3rd place finish and I’ve dusted myself off and recovered. I’m ready to get back on the horse and try to get on top of the World again.
UHA: If you could send a message to all of the youth in society today what would it be?
Brad: Don’t ever be scared to try something or to fail. I spent a lot of my time failing before I got to where I am today and I still continue to fail, because it’s not until you fail at something that you learn. I never wanted to play disabled sports when I was young and thank God my Grandmother dragged me away from my Nintendo because I look where I am now and the people I have met and places I’ve been and thank my lucky stars that I got out of the house that weekend. You never know what your going to become passionate about when you try something, you don’t always have to be a passionate athlete, some people just aren’t made to excel at sports, but you can always find something in the world that you can grab hold of and be passionate about. Don’t ever stop finding that.
UHA: It's been a pleasure catching up with you Brad. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story and assuring us to never take anything in life for granted. As always wishing you the best of luck moving forward.
Brad: Thank you for letting me tell my story and allowing me to promote the sport. I would like to add that if anyone is interested in ever getting involved in sledge hockey - do it! I see many people these days going to gyms, getting involved in very unusual programs to get fit and be healthy and although a lot of people might look at sledge as a 'Disabled Sport' it really isn’t. Disability rarely comes into play when you’re strapped into a sled and I can assure anyone that if you are looking to build a great upper body and build on your cardio, look into getting into a sledge hockey program in your area. I would love to see more able-bodied athletes playing the sport. I am a huge fan of inclusiveness and changing the way people view the sport, just as basketball is now starting to grow with the help of more able-bodied athletes participating, I think it would amazing to see it do the same for sledge!
Special thanks to Brad Bowden for taking the time to sit down with Unsung Hero. For more information on how to get involved with Sledge Hockey Canada, visit the Hockey Canada website. For more information on how to get involved with Canadian Wheelchair Basketball, visit the Wheelchair Basketball Canada website.