Call Her Coach: Bridgewater's Inspirational Transformation
Erin Bridgewater

Feb. 14, 2014

By Michael Kasiborski,

Erin Bridgewater began her senior year of diving at the University of Michigan as a team captain. She will end her senior year as a student assistant coach. What happened in-between is a lesson on courage, perseverance, selflessness and loyalty to her team.

You might think that the ten meters down would be the hard part. The body control, the mental will and the precise execution of a diver must all work in sync for the ten meters that it takes gravity to pull them from the platform to the surface of the water. Months of preparations pour out in a few wondrous seconds of flipping, spinning and twisting.

But for Erin Bridgewater, the ten meters down to the water was the easy part. She had prepared for that all season. No, the platform was not the problem. It was the water.

Even with her right wrist taped up like a boxer's, every time she hit the water, her wrist would send shockwaves of pain through her body.

"I would scream underwater and then go get my wrist retaped," Bridgewater recalls.

Then she would climb the stairs up the back of the platform and do it all again. Ten times in all during the Big Ten Championships in 2013. She wound up scoring points for Michigan at the meet by finishing 12th from the platform. Not a bad way to go out on your final competition.

Of course, Bridgewater had no idea her diving career was over. That notion came on gradually, quite differently than the thunderclap of pain she experienced impacting the water during that Big Ten meet.

A young Bridgewater with gymnastics ribbons earned at a meet held at Cliff Keen Arena
Bridgewater in high school with private coach Janet Beattie

She had to say goodbye once before. From weekday practices to weekend meets, Bridgewater's early years were defined by gymnastics. But before she reached high school, her elbows had been operated on three times. Her doctor told her it was time to move on.

"It was a hard goodbye because I had invested 11 years in gymnastics, and I wanted to do it in college, at Michigan -- that was my goal," she said.

Where does a gymnast who is no longer a gymnast go? A friend on her high school swim team begged her to try diving, so she decided to give it a shot.

"It took me a while to feel comfortable going into the water headfirst -- ask any former gymnast, it takes a while to feel good about that and not landing on your feet."

Eventually she adapted and found a private coach to supplement her skills and speed-up her development. Janet Beattie was coaching at another high school, and took Bridgewater on as a pupil only after significant pleading.

"I would practice with my high school team and then drive out to her pool and practice with her," Bridgewater said. "For a year and a half, she transformed me."

So much so that Michigan took an interest in the gymnast-turned-diver by the start of her senior year. One visit and she knew Michigan was the place for her. Bridgewater would be a Wolverine, the culmination of a lifetime of fandom -- her father Todd is an alum -- and three years of hard work to become a diver.

Head diving coach KZ Li arrived in Ann Arbor the same season as freshman diver Erin Bridgewater. He was charged with turning the former gymnast into a Big Ten-caliber competitor.

"KZ pushed us really hard," she said. "I learned an entire three-meter list that was acceptable in competition in two months. It was hard and I was scared, but I did it."

She and fellow freshman Brianna Maroukis were pushed by a talented group of upperclassmen, including captain Rachel Ropiek.

"Rachel scared me," said Bridgewater. "But I worked really hard to impress her, I wanted her acceptance. She taught us that it is not about yourself. She is an amazing Michigan woman."

Bridgewater (second from left) with Rachel Ropiek, junior Amanda Lohman and fellow freshman Bri Maroukis
Bridgewater (second from right) as a junior with (from left) Marina Nazario, Sarah Kamstra and Bri Maroukis

By her junior season, Erin Bridgewater's right wrist was wracked with de Quervain syndrome. The tendons around her thumb were inflamed, preventing her from pulling her thumb toward her palm.

The discomfort started during a training session before the season started. Bridgewater remembers the dive well -- calling the back-two-and-a-half pike her favorite dive of all. Something tightened in her wrist and never relinquished.

The athletic training staff threw all sorts of remedies at her wrist over the ensuing months, trying in vain to get the pain to subside. After a series of cortisone shots proved ineffective, Bridgewater made a big decision.

The pain that caused her screams to erupt underwater during the Big Ten meet was too much. She had surgery designed to release the pain in her wrist before her senior season began.

The 2013-14 Michigan women's swimming and diving team named a quartet of captains. Erin Bridgewater was one of them. She planned on motivating her teammates just like Rachel Ropiek had with her.

With surgery on her wrist now in her rearview mirror, the pain was, too. She wanted her last season to be her best, to build off scoring points at the Big Ten meet and to inspire her teammates to do the same.

But when she returned to training in the water, the pain came flooding back. The familiar surge that would set her wrist on fire was not extinguished after all.

She stayed out of the water, doing her best to lead from the pool deck.

"I think I'm best at leading by example, and not being able to be in the water with my teammates (was difficult) -- I had to relearn how to lead in a different way," she said. "The team had to come first for me. I was named captain for a reason and I had to be there to support my team."

As one of only two senior divers, Bridgewater led Michigan's younger divers with her voice instead of her work ethic. She encouraged them, offered advice and remained cheerful, despite her own private struggle. The pain began to build even away from the pool.

"Holding a coffee cup was painful, holding a frying pan was painful, twisting my keys was painful," she confessed. "I didn't want to live the rest of my life not being able to do normal things. I knew I had to do something."

One more surgery. One more hope to get back in the water.

Bridgewater with head diving coach KZ Li
Bridgewater in her new role on the deck as a coach

The date is Jan. 10, 2014. It has been 10 weeks since Erin Bridgewater's second wrist surgery on Halloween 2013. She is standing on the pool deck at Canham Natatorium, allowing herself a few minutes to be sad. She says goodbye to competitive diving.

She says she knew it was coming, that the doctor would tell her to walk away.

"He said, 'If you were my daughter, I'd tell you to move on,'" she recounts.

It is the second time before her 22nd birthday that she has had to call it quits on a sport that feeds her soul.

"To go through that again, I was prepared in a way," she said. "And my future was already lined up for me. Mike Bottom (swimming head coach), Rick Bishop (associate head coach) and KZ wanted me to stay on with the staff to coach. That was really warming and welcoming."

They call her "coach" now. She is still navigating the coach/roommate/friend zone with her peers, but she is thrilled to be with her team -- the team she has been counted on to lead as a captain and now a student assistant coach.

"Being a part of the swim and dive staff is an honor. Mike Bottom has gone so far with this program and I get to work under him," she said. "I get to encourage the team and that's really powerful. I love it."

Bottom is the picture of positivity, and Bridgewater's enthusiasm fits right in with his mission for Michigan swimming and diving.

On the day she had to retire from diving, Bottom walked up to her and told her, "I'm really sad for you, I know you really wanted to dive. But I want to tell you in the nicest way that I'm really excited to have you the staff."

In her new role, she can travel with the team to away meets -- which she did to Ohio State (Jan. 31-Feb. 1) -- and which she will do for the Big Ten Championships (Feb. 19-22) in Minnesota. Most importantly, with the uncertainty about her diving future settled, she can focus all of her energy on helping Michigan's divers.

"Having gone through what Erin gas gone through with her wrist and her surgeries, she has this incredible passion to dive," said Bottom. "She is translating that passion for herself to the team. She is helping this team get better."

The scar on her right wrist looks a bit like a lightning bolt. She likens it to Harry Potter's, except that it is not on her forehead.

"I love it now," she said of her scar. "I have overcome so many obstacles. I am a very faithful and spiritual person. I would not have made it through this journey if it hadn't been for my faith, and for the support of my coaches and teammates."

Through stretching and therapy Erin is working her wrist and hand back to normal function. It is a long process but the doctors are very optimistic in her recovery.

While her wrist has been transformed, so has she. From captain to coach. She continues to adapt for the good of the team.

"I give the team my energy and my love, and I hope in turn that they have an amazing rest of their season," she said. "My goal is to be their rock."

Erin Bridgewater plans to graduate in 2014 with a degree in psychology. She is currently pursuing post-graduate opportunities and hopes to become an athletics academic counselor in her future.