TAMPA — A worn poster hangs in Sam Bridgman’s bedroom, a black-and-white photo of a triumphant Muhammad Ali after a boxing match, with the caption “Impossible is nothing.”
For Bridgman, 24, Ali’s immortal words have a become a battle cry. He likes to think of the unseen opponent Ali has just beaten in the ring as the disease Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare degenerative disorder that began to take over his body when he was a 15-year-old high school freshman.
Bridgman is Ali, and the next round of his fight against the disease will take place at the University of South Florida, where he started classes in the MBA program this week. In two years, he aims to graduate with an MBA and a master’s degree in sports and entertainment management.
On Friday, Bridgman was awarded a full scholarship and internship to cover his two years of study in the graduate program — about $15,000 from JP Morgan Chase. Nearly 200 other students received $450,000 in scholarship money at the USF Muma College of Business’ annual scholarship luncheon.
With a giant smile across his face, Bridgman met with the donors helping him fulfill dreams that may once have seemed impossible.
“He was the perfect candidate,” said Michelle Harrolle, a professor in USF’s sports and entertainment management program. “He’s very smart, has a great GPA and is just a great person — someone you want to have on your team.”
Bridgman’s genetic disorder will cause a slow loss of coordination throughout his body, he said. His doctors warned that eventually he’ll be unable to care for himself, his heart will fail and his story could end with a premature death.
There is currently no treatment or cure.
“It’s like my body is slower than the brain — my muscles are still strong, but my body doesn’t know what to do with my strong muscles,” Bridgman said. “If I get hurt, I can’t really come back from that.”
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The diagnosis was devastating for Bridgman and his family. Growing up in Seattle, Washington, he was an avid athlete. When he was 7, he set a goal to throw 50 pitches a day and was a standout on his local baseball team, said his mother, Amy Koepnick. When he was 13, he was a double black diamond skier.
“He just came out of the womb happy,” Koepnick said. “Even when he was little he was fearless, and it’s in his nature to be determined.”
By the time he was 15, though, Bridgman couldn’t ski at all. At 18, he could no longer play baseball. By the end of his freshman year of college, he was spending half his time in a wheelchair, and when he graduated from the University of Portland in 2013, he was using a motorized wheelchair all the time. The wheelchair can go pretty fast, he said with a smile.
“I had two choices: I could choose to curl up into a little ball and let FA take over or I could choose to live my life to the fullest each and every day,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I prepare myself for the career of my dreams?”
He works hard to keep the optimism needed to push through his disorder, he said.
At the University of Portland, Bridgman trained five times a week with athletic strength trainers to keep his muscles in shape and stayed active in baseball as the social media manager for his college team.
When he graduated in 2013, he stunned the crowd and made headlines by abandoning his wheelchair to walk across the stage to grab his finance degree, with help from his two trainers. He decided about a month before then that he could do it, to the surprise of his parents and 21-year-old brother. His efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation.
“We were amazed, we’re still amazed,” Koepnick said. “He’s not afraid to put himself out there, and because of that he finds people willing to help him.”
After graduation, Bridgman worked in accounting at Nike World Headquarters. Although he has only lived in Tampa for two weeks, he has already started his internship in the community relations department of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Lightning Foundation.
Someday, he’ll find a career that fosters his passion for professional sports, he said.
“I’m still figuring out what I like and don’t like and trying to keep an open mind,” he said. “I want to do well in school and do well in my job and live life to the fullest each and every day. Beyond that I’m still figuring it out.”
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With his grandmother in Indian Rocks Beach, grandfather in Sarasota and uncle in Lutz, Bridgman already knew the Tampa area well, he said. He knew he wanted to be a part of USF’s growing sports management program, which he says is the best in the nation. A big part of the allure, though, was the Friedreich’s ataxia Research Alliance, or FARA, which has a major presence in Tampa.
Bridgman has volunteered with the organization since he learned of the disorder, raising about $20,000 for research through fundraisers. When he could, he participated in bike rides to raise awareness, and he has worked as project manager for the Portland chapter and on event planning committees.
USF researchers are studying FA, and the university will host the group’s annual symposium and fundraising ball in September, he said.
“Through FARA I created so many friends and family here that I can depend on for anything, and coming to Tampa, it felt like I was already from Tampa because I have a second family here,” he said. “It helps to have someone to eat dinner with if I have a bad day, and it’s always good to know you’re in a place where people care about you.”
For two years, Bridgman’s younger brother lived with him in Portland as his caretaker, but Bridgman came to USF on his own. He now lives independently with three roommates in an apartment off campus, and his move so far away has been the hardest challenge his mother has faced, she said.
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His parents had a frank discussion with him about the challenges he will face with his health, but his response was the only affirmation his mother needed: “I’m worried too, but aren’t I allowed to try?”
“He’s teaching me that it’s all about today, and for Sam, things don’t get any better than today. His disease is just going to get worse,” Koepnick said. “We all have to really seize the moment, don’t worry about the future or the regrets of the past, just live for today.”