Brittany Hudak woke up with jangled nerves and gold in her sights on the first day of the 2020 World Para-Nordic Ski Championships.
Then came the knock at her hotel room door that changed everything.
In the middle of the night, organizers had cancelled the event. The Canadian team needed to fly home immediately due to the rising threat of COVID-19 in Europe.
“I thought it was a joke,” says Hudak, a bronze medallist in biathlon at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “I was super excited and felt so confident in my fitness. We train all season long to be at our best on that day in March. I couldn’t believe that it came to such a disappointing end.”
On the flight home, a despondent Hudak took stock and pledged to find her own silver lining in the midst of the pandemic.
One year earlier, she had finished her degree in social work at the University of Regina, but dedicated herself to competing instead of working in her chosen field.
So she dusted off her resume and set out to find work as a helper.
Helping others triumph
These days, she splits her time between training at the winter paradise that is the Canmore Nordic Centre and her job at a Calgary-area residential group home for teenagers.
Some of the clients are battling addictions. Some are in trouble with the law. Some are dealing with crippling financial insecurity.
“I knew social work was not going to be easy,” she says. “You see a lot in a day, and you hear a lot in a day.
“It’s about meeting the individual where they’re at and understanding their situation. I really love learning about people’s struggles and trying to help them triumph over those adversities.”
WATCH | Hudak wins bronze at the 2018 Winter Paralympics:
Hudak, 27, understands what it’s like to struggle.
“Growing up missing part of my arm, I always knew I was in a minority group,” she says. “I know certain groups in society are oppressed and have things go against them. My background with a disability I think really helps me in social work.”
The Prince Albert, Sask., product discovered biathlon at age 18 thanks to a chance encounter with Colette Bourgonje, a 10-time Paralympic medallist.
Hudak was working at a Canadian Tire store in Prince Albert, and Bourgonje struck up a conversation, urging her to try out cross-country skiing.
“We have Colette to thank for finding Brittany,” says Robin McKeever, head coach of the Canadian para-Nordic team. “Our focus is on Beijing in 2022 and I’m hoping for Brittany to repeat the medal she won in Pyeongchang or go for a couple more medals. We have a great team around her, and she’s getting to the perfect age as a skier and an endurance sport athlete.”
Like most elite winter athletes, Hudak has no idea when she’ll race again on the World Cup circuit. She hopes the Beijing Olympics will happen, but realizes there’s no guarantee given the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
“It would be so easy to spend a lot of focus and energy wondering what is going to happen,” she says. “I’m trying to reserve my energy and focus on what’s in my control.”
To that end, she is building her fitness to be in the best shape of her life for 2022.
And, at the same time, she’s trying to help a group of teenagers in crisis find their way through their own personal storms.
“I think it’s really important to have balance,” she says. “If I didn’t ski as well as I would have liked to in an interval session, it can seem like such a big deal when I’m only focused on sports.
“When I leave and go to work, sometimes it’s a refreshing thing for me to have the mental switch. I realize a bad day for someone else is 1,000 times worse than a bad day for me on skis.”