Willing to Fail
by Catherine Dewar Paul, RN, MPH
Sam Bridgman defines determination. For his regular workout, he points the wheels of his chair towards the top of the hill. He secures his ankles with straps to keep his lower legs in place. Dressed in athletic gear, he faces the summit, where a sign reads, “13-15% Grade 1,000 Ft. Long.” His gloved hands grab the top of the wheels and force them forward. His long, sinewy arms propel him closer and closer to the sign. Halfway up, each thrust is accompanied with a grunt. The front wheels pop up and the chair careens backwards. Sam pivots to the right, stabilizes the chair and then continues. After 15 minutes, sweating and breathing hard, he reaches the top. Sam confesses, “Sometimes my mom hikes behind me. If she helps, I stop, turn around and head towards the bottom. When she walks away, I turn around and start back up.”
Sam says this with a grin, his trademark smile. He knows someday the hill will be too great a challenge. The condition that altered his boyhood dream of becoming a professional athlete will eventually end this daily workout. But Sam focuses on what he can do to stay strong mentally and physically and to help others do the same. For now, Sam lets his mom know he can do this climb on his own. He doesn’t need help. He is willing to fall, knowing he’ll figure out a way to get back up and continue to climb the hill
Sam grew up in Seattle, active in many sports, but in love with baseball. “I think I liked baseball even before I started playing it. Just something about having the ball in your hand,” he says. He was the talented kid who pulled the rim of his well-molded baseball cap down over his eyes before sending a pitch. When he missed fielding a play or pitched a bad game, he peppered the coach with questions, asking what he needed to do different next time. Practice sessions with his dad, his younger brother Max or friends often lasted hours, repeating drills, striving for perfection, dreaming of one day playing Major League Baseball.
Sometime in middle school Sam noticed friends on his baseball team getting better while he grew progressively worse. “I was catching my toes on the ground,” Sam says. “I didn’t know why. I thought I needed to work harder.”
March of his freshman year, Sam tried out for the high school baseball team. Years of practice, passion and playing in All Star games should have led to a position on the team. Sam expected it. Keith Bosley, the high school baseball coach, remembers Sam at the plate. “He had a left handed swing that was quick and natural and a good arm. But his lateral movement and reaction time had started to slip. When he ran, it was as if he had 25-pound weights on each foot.”
At the end of the third day, Coach Bosley called a group of boys to the pitcher’s mound to tell them they didn’t make the team. As they started to pack up their bags, one of them approached the coach. “What do I need to do to be on the team next year?” asked Sam.
Since he first started tripping and loosing balance, his parents suspected something wasn’t right. They took him to different medical professionals. After he didn’t make the freshman baseball team, they tried an integration specialist. He discovered Sam had no sensation in his toes. That was when his parents decided something was definitely wrong and took Sam to a neurologist. Sam remembers, “The neurologist was one of those guys that talked really slow. I just wanted to leave. I didn’t really care what he was saying. I just wanted to go home, to go back and practice.” After what seemed an eternity, he got the news. Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare inherited neurological condition that causes gradual degeneration of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, was the reason for his awkward, unsteady movements and impaired sensory functions. He learned that FA progresses differently for each individual. Many develop heart complications and diabetes. It can be life shortening. And, despite promising research on preventive and palliative therapies, FA has no treatment or cure.
The diagnosis explained why his body wouldn’t do what his mind was telling it to. “But,” Sam said, “there is a difference between knowing and accepting. I was going to be the first Major League Baseball player with FA.”
Sam kept his diagnosis a secret. No one knew but close family connections, relatives and teachers. He didn’t want pity, and he didn’t want to stop being an athlete. He continued to play baseball and other sports he had always excelled at. But diminishing coordination and agility often left him frustrated and angry.
While skiing, Sam, his dad and a friend headed down a narrow steep slope with Sam in the lead. A group of young skiers stood in the middle of the path. Sam veered to the side of the path to avoid a collision, and hit a slight upward slope just enough to slow down, lose balance and fall. Lying in the snow with legs that would no longer slalom over moguls, he pummeled the snow and cursed his fall. The skiers were too close not to hear his rant. “You shouldn’t say that,” one of them yelled. Sam dug his poles into the snow, righted the rest of his body with his upper arms, and pointing his skis downward, landed close enough to the group to return just two words as sharp and clear as a line drive into center field.
Over the next three years, the symptoms grew worse and Sam’s focus shifted. Unable to play for his high school baseball team, he worked as manager, practiced alongside his teammates, took the bus to away games and encouraged the other players. When pre-season temperatures plummeted below 35 degrees, Sam showed up for practice, always in uniform, always a part of the team.
In the fall of 2009 he entered the business program at the University of Portland, a flat campus with a Division I baseball team and a coach interested in Sam’s knowledge of the game. He began helping with recruitment of new players and videotaping, but switched to less physical jobs as the FA progressed. Sam used an adapted tricycle to go between classes. By the end of his freshman year, he resorted to a wheelchair part-time.
Sam recalls, “There were times when I was really sad. But I don’t think there was ever a time when I truly wanted to give up. I remember at UP, breaking down crying to friends because things were getting bad, and I had no idea what to do. It was probably harder for them to watch. Because they couldn’t do anything either.”
But friends did help, opting for less physically challenging activities, giving piggyback rides down stairs, offering physical activity during off hours, or just telling him they would always be there for him no matter what. Most important for Sam, friends treated him no differently than others.
A teammate of Sam’s from UP remembers Sam sitting in his wheelchair in the indoor hitting facility watching players work on their swings, taking notes, offering encouragement. Sam picked up a bat. One of the players asked him, “How good a hitter were you?”
With a big smile Sam said, “I could probably still hit.”
“Let’s see what you got,” one of them said.
A friend helped him up out of the chair and over to the plate. Sam, who throws right handed, made his way to the left side of the plate. With wobbly legs and bat in hand, on the first toss swung and hit a line drive towards left-center in the cage. The momentum threw him on to his back. The others stood silent. But his smile told all. Helping him up, they broke into a cheer as loud as if Sam had hit a home run.
Sam wasn’t a kid who needed to figure out what he wanted to do – he had to figure out what he could do. In the spring of his senior year, Sam’s parents signed up the family: Mom, Dad, younger brother Max and Sam for Ride Ataxia, a 13-day bike ride, a fundraiser for FA organized by Kyle Bryant, a 33-year-old athlete diagnosed with FA at age 17.
He rode the trip alongside Kyle, both on recumbent tricycles. After miles of flat desert, the highway climbed towards Las Vegas. At the summit, the road plunged towards the city. Sam hit the hill at what he remembers to be about 35 mph, dodging debris and lumber, avoiding semi trucks barreling down the highway. Again, he was Sam the athlete who could do anything. Over the years, Sam, through Kyle, started to envision the kind of life he could have.
Sports for Sam always meant team. A childhood friend recalled, “My mom called him the general of the basketball court, calling fouls, telling other kids how to play, acting as referee. He was fiery but also incredibly positive.”
As Sam’s limbs weakened, his focus on helping others grew. In high school he attempted to replace the rocky, pocked field his team had for practice and home games through Make-a-Wish Foundation. After months of failed negotiations with the city, Sam settled on his second option, a day with the Seattle Mariners. The day included the opportunity to throw out the first pitch for the night’s game and tickets for family friends and teammates.
At the University of Portland, Sam along with another UP baseball player, initiated a wheelchair basketball competition between the UP men’s and women’s basketball team and the Portland Wheel Blazers, a member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They named it SamJam. At half time Sam spoke to the crowd of over 500 about his personal experience with Friedreich’s ataxia. The event raised $7,000 for FA research.
Sam stayed in Portland after graduating. He lives with his brother Max and lives life to the fullest. He has worked at the Nike World Headquarters, raised over $80,000 for Friedreich’s ataxia research through his involvement with the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA), assists coordinating activities for FA families and volunteers for an organization that builds accessible playgrounds.
At his graduation from the University of Portland, his name was called, and Sam pulled himself up out of the wheelchair. With friends on either side and legs that could just barely support him, he walked the distance to the podium and accepted his diploma, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Finance. The crowd, 5,000 strong, stood, applauded and cheered.
In December of 2013 on an early Saturday morning his high school Sports Boosters drew a full crowd to celebrate Sam as their honorary hero. Athletes, their families, friends and coaches gathered to celebrate their alumnus. They gifted Sam with the honor of again throwing out the first pitch at a Mariners baseball game.
Accepting the gift, Sam spoke to the group. Those in the back craned their necks to see him over the crowd, all on their feet, applauding. Sam said, “Champions are not made on an individual basis. You need a family base to win a championship. Great teams treat each other as a complete family.”
The following spring, game day, Sam published a condensed version of his story in the Seattle Times. A local television station along with ESPN covered the event. Old friends, mothers of athletes, parents of children dealing with chronic conditions and individuals with their own challenges wrote in to thank Sam for his message of perseverance.
That night, Sam Bridgman held the baseball in his hand ready to throw towards home plate. After wheeling his lithe, athletic, 22-year-old body to the pitcher’s mound, he prepared his pitch. Seattle’s cold windy weather didn’t bother him. The wheelchair didn’t inhibit his wind up. Sam looked intently at the Seattle Mariner crouched down at home plate and lobbed a perfect throw directly into the glove. All stood applauding, the crowd, the players. And Sam smiled his infectious smile. After the game, Sam returned home to Portland, back to daily life and back to his afternoon regimen. He parks his accessible van just south of the University of Portland, works his way into his chair and wheels himself to the hill. He straps his legs to his wheelchair and climbs, sometimes pivoting backwards to the point of falling, but always persevering until he reaches the top.
Click on the links below or follow Sam on Instagram & Twitter @sambridgman5
University of Portland – https://vimeo.com/43579515
Incight and Nike – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVMQ4L1x1qg
University of South Florida – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMmFiNPQes0
Willing to Fail by Catherine Dewar Paul, RN, MPH is an excerpt from Fresh Start Moments: True Stories to Ignite Passion & Purpose written and compiled by Bob Danzig.