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Sami Jo Small, a three-time Olympian and five-time world champion, purchased a used Mazda Protege5 last year. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Sami Jo Small, a three-time Olympian and five-time world champion, purchased a used Mazda Protege5 last year. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

My Car

Small stands tall with her Mazda Protege Add to ...

She's a three-time Olympian and five-time world champion.

Sami Jo Small, a goalie on the gold-medal-winning Canadian women's hockey team in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, didn't make the team for the 2010 Olympics, but her fiancé did make the sledge hockey team for the 2010 Paralymic Games. Unfortunately, Billy Bridges, who plays forward, missed out on a medal when Canada placed fourth.

But those setbacks hasn't stopped Small from continuing to hit the rink. She plays in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which she co-founded. To get to practice, Small drives a 2002 Mazda Protege5 she bought last year.

"The hatchback for me was a big selling feature. Not only am I a hockey player, but I'm a goaltender who has a ton of equipment and my fiancé is a sledge hockey player so he has his bag, his sled and his wheelchair. So if we go and play hockey together, we have to fit all of that in the car."

This is Small's second Mazda - her first was a 1992 Mazda 323. "It could carry all my hockey equipment. It was blue. So my friends named it the 'Blue Bomber' after the [Winnipeg]Blue Bombers," says the native of Winnipeg, who studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University in California.

"Some of my friends would be embarrassed just being seen with me in my little Mazda 323," she laughs. "I am a professional speaker by trade and an Olympian pulling into some event and people expect a certain type of vehicle that you might be driving and they see this little Mazda 323. At times, that was somewhat embarrassing.

"Finally last year, my friends were all over my case to get a car that was a little bit safer with airbags. … Now that I have a real job, real income, it was about time to get a new car," she says.

"I decided to get used because I come from a family who instilled those values in me to be frugal and basically buy what you need."

Bridges came across the Protege5 at a used-car lot. Small took a test drive and fell in love instantly. "It drove a lot like the 323, but it was safer and had airbags. It was a lot more modern as well. It's called 'Silver Bomber' in honour of the 'Blue Bomber.' "

It's a step up from her 323. "The biggest difference now is that it has air conditioning - that is a great feature for me now. I can't believe I lived for such a long time without it. My air conditioning previously was just opening the windows. Now that I have air conditioning, I realize how heavenly it is.

"I think my fiancé would love a better sound system in it, but not me. I just usually listen to CBC Radio - I'm a dork that way."

Bridges, who lives with the effects of spina bifida, won gold medals at the Paralympics in Torino in 2006, the World Championship in 2008 and two World Sledge Hockey Challenges in 2007 and 2008. On the road, he drives a 2004 Jeep Liberty. "It's also very conducive to put our gear in," Small says.

"And neither one of us wanted a car that was too bad for the environment, either. I didn't want a big SUV or a truck. I just wanted something that could fit everything and still be good to the environment and still be economical," says Small, who runs one of the largest female-only hockey schools in Canada.

Sami Jo Small with her fiancé, Billy Bridges, who played forward on the Canadian sledge hockey team for the 2010 Paralymic Games.

"He's more of a car junkie. He grew up around cars. He had an Eagle Talon before he got his Jeep. He's more into the speed and the drive. He appreciates the finer mechanics of a car than I probably would. I taught him to be a little more frugal; however, you can't take the car lover out of the guy. Whenever we see a great car, it definitely turns his head."

Even though Small is an engineer, she's not familiar with the mechanics of her wheels. "I should know more about my car. At school, I could tell you how to dissect an airplane engine, yet ask me about my own car and it's another story. Someone else is going to fix it, right?"

Small's first car was a Ford Escort. "My brother and I shared it when I turned 16. My brother was a swimmer and I was a hockey player. My parents were very generous with us. They no longer wanted to drive," says Small.

"My brother also went to school in California. He went to Berkeley and I went to Stanford. I had some pretty amazing road trips with him where we drove from Winnipeg to California. We used to drive down to school together and stop at all the touristy places along the way. We'd drive out to Vancouver and then straight down the coast - it was gorgeous drives and good memories.

"When you have a car that's reliable and can fit a bunch of stuff in it, it can provide you with a sense of home travelling across the country. As an Olympian, I'm so thankful to see such an amazing country and to represent this amazing country."

Nowadays, she has little time for road trips - she is, after all, planning her wedding next year. But she'll keep motoring along in her Silver Bomber. "I'm fairly confident that I'll drive this for along time. I don't mind driving a small car and if I can get away with it, I will."

But her dream car isn't a Mazda. "A Lamborghini Countach - that's been my dream vehicle my whole life! Because it looks so cool. It would be so amazing to drive!"

pgentile@globeandmail.com

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