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Riding toward a cure


Nike finance employee keeps riding to find cure for neuromuscular disease

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY SARAH RAMIREZ - Sam Bridgman, center, blows off steam with Jared Swannson, left, and his Ride Ataxia teammates after he rode 10 miles on a hand-controlled tricycle for the event held Sunday in Redmond, Wash. Sam Bridgman was a natural-born athlete.

As a kid he loved to play baseball, basketball and downhill ski.

As adolescence approached, however, he found his coordination, energy — his overall athletic mojo — were somehow failing him.

“I didn’t make the basketball team my freshman year, and that was surprising,” he says. “I was having trouble downhill skiing. I would trip a lot. I was always tired. Fatigue is a big part of it.”

A blood test revealed the “it” to be Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare, genetically connected degenerative neuromuscular disease that results in loss of coordination and usually in a serious heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Bridgman was diagnosed with the incurable disease at 15.

“It was hard for me to deal with it at first,” he says, “but I think it was even harder for my parents and brother to deal with it. They were the ones who had to watch me progress day in and day out, and there was nothing they could do about it.”

Now an employee in the Nike financial department, Bridgman, 23, is doing something about it. Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY SARAH RAMIREZ - Nike employee Sam Bridgman makes it to the finish in his hand-controlled tricycle as part of the Ride Ataxia event on Sunday, Aug. 3, in Redmond, Wash.

On Sunday, the University of Portland graduate, who uses a manual wheelchair for mobility, rode a hand-powered tricycle 10 miles in Redmond, Wash., as part of its inaugural Ride Ataxia event. Sponsored by the Friedreich’s ataxia Research Alliance and Outback Steakhouse, the ride — including four routes ranging from five to 53 miles — raises awareness and funding for the alliance’s research into the disease while providing hope to families affected by FA.

Bridgman, who was surrounded by family and friends at the event, surpassed his initial donation-sponsor goal of $500 by so far raising $6,876 in pledges from 42 supporters.

While the Redmond event is new, Bridgman has participated in several FA-related fund- and awareness-raising cycle rides over the years, including an annual 2,000-mile trek from Sacramento, Calif., to Memphis, Tenn., and a 450-mile journey from Las Vegas to Bakersfield, Calif.

He’s downsized the distances, but always finds a ride to take on.

“The rides are something I look forward to every year,” he says. “You’re around a very positive group of people you can relate to in a very intimate way. Family members of those with FA know exactly what my family members are going through. They can relate to each other in that way.”

The ride, which Bridgman completed in one hour, is not a competition, at least in terms of besting other riders through speed.

“That’s a pretty adamant fact, that the ride is not a race,” he says, noting a highlight of Sunday’s event was the support he felt from friends and family. “My grandma was here from Florida. A lot of friends came from all over.”

Ambassador of action

Laurie Kelley, vice president of University Relations at the University of Portland, is among Bridgman’s most loyal supporters and friends. She met Sam in the spring of 2012 as he planned for his first Ride Ataxia event.

“Sam is an incredible person,” she says. “His positive outlook and upbeat attitude are infectious. Everyone who meets him is drawn to him because he is such a positive force. He makes the time to keep his relationships moving forward. I see it with all of his friends and people from the university he has become close to over the years.”

Calling Bridgman an “ambassador” for those going through a difficult time in life with a disability or disease, Kelley feels Sam would make a difference in regardless of his medical condition.

“He wants to make a difference in the world,” she says. “Because of his disease he’s making a difference in the FA community. I’m pretty sure all that energy would be directed toward other worthy causes.”

Although his condition is genetic, Bridgman has found only anecdotal evidence of Friedreich’s ataxia in his family tree.

“It’s a very young disease,” he says, noting the FA gene wasn’t isolated until the 1990s. “If we’d had conversations with my grandparents, I think some people in my family may have had symptoms. There’s no way to truly know.”

Moving ahead

Admitting the condition has held him back in various ways, with the chronic fatigue making academic success a challenge, one of the toughest things to deal with was the loss of his athletic ability.

“A large part of it is mental,” he says. “Dealing with the fact that it’s going to get worse over time. I lost the ability to do everything I loved to do. I couldn’t play baseball or basketball. I couldn’t downhill ski. Having a great family with a lot of support meant a lot to me. It got me through those times.”

Becoming team manager of the Grant High School baseball team helped mitigate the loss of athletic opportunities, and he continued the role in college as student team manager for the UP program.

“I kept baseball and sports in my life,” he says. “It kept some normalcy in my life.”

Now enjoying his job at the Nike World Headquarters near Beaverton, Bridgman is determined to make a difference for those suffering with Friedreich’s ataxia.

“To find a cure for this disease so the next generation will not know what FA is, that would make me very happy,” he says. “No matter what challenge you’re facing in life, it’s always important to keep moving forward and work toward a goal.

“Always have positive thoughts in the back of your mind.”