Crew Still Floats His Boat
A stroke of serendipity changed the course of John David“J.D.” Bridges' life forever. As a sophomore at Haverford in 1999, he was wandering around an activities fair in Founders Hall. A student with the fledgling crew team, a club sport that had launched the previous year, targeted him with his pitch. On a whim, Bridges decided to give it a try.
“I'd never done any sport before,” he says. (When he told his music-professor parents that he joined crew, they thought he meant stage crew, he says.) But from the first day, Bridges was smitten by his time on the water, and rose to captain and student coach by his senior yearâ€”experiences that have fostered his love affair with the sport ever since.
A lawyer by day, Bridgesâ€”who is considered one of the country's top rowing coachesâ€”spends afternoons and more coaching varsity boys' crew at the private Shipley School on the Main Line. He also runs development camps; this summer, he will work with Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club, attracting elite rowers interested in training under him.
“The value of athletics, and rowing in particular, is unquestionable in my life,” says the 34-year-old Nashville transplant to Wayne, Pa.“You see a kid who comes in as a freshman, and they're completely goofy, gawky, maybe they've never done sports before. Three or four years later, you see them come out as men. They're confident, disciplined, successful people who have learned so much about themselves and the world and what they can get out of themselves and the world when they spend a lot of time and energy.”
Much of the same could be said about Bridges himself.
At 5-foot-10 and“a lot skinnier than I am now,” the newbie athlete at Haverford was initially slotted as a coxswain, the lightweight who directs the boat. Rowers are usually big, tall boys with the leverage for powerful strokes. But when Bridges showed up for practice, the team needed another oar puller, and he was put to use. He wasn't necessarily a standout, but he had spirit.
“J.D. did everything with passion,” says Valeria Gospodinov, head rowing coach at Haverford, who was hired when Bridges was a senior. Gospodinov, who also coaches the Radnor Boys Crew Club, sees Bridges occasionally at races.“He's a very, very good coach, very dedicated.”
Bridges gives full credit to Haverford's unusual ethos.“The Haverford experience allows people to grow up and change and try to do stuff they've never done before,” he says.“It's life-changing.”
After graduation, the history major taught school, and the job allowed him to coach at Moorestown Rowing Club in New Jersey. In 2008, he got his master's in kinesiology from Temple University; in 2012, he also earned his law degree from there.
All the while, he coached rowers. In his current legal job, snagged through rowing connections, he works from home as director of contract administration for MCPc, an Ohio-based information technology company. He also owes his marriage to the water. Wife Sheila
Bridges is a physical-therapy assistant and rowing coach who once worked with Bridges. She now coaches at Whitemarsh Boat Club.“I'm not sure I could marry someone who was not a rowing coach,” he says in all seriousness.
“Guys like J.D. are gold in the world of rowing,” says Paul Horvat, the vice commodore of the Schuylkill Navy and a representative to the USRowing Association.“They're turned on by the sport.”
On a recent late-spring day, the river sparkles in front of a backdrop of Center City Philadelphia skyscrapers. The Shipley athletes, who tower over Bridges, carry oars onto the Penn AC Rowing Association docks on Boathouse Row.
Two of them heft a long, sleek shell overhead and flip it onto the water.“Let's get rowing right away in the pick drill,” Bridges says.“Right away.” The boat takes off, the oarsmen rowing fluidly, as Bridges, in jeans and a light-blue Shipley polo, issues instructions through a megaphone from a nuts-and-bolts launch.
When he coaches, Bridges says, he sees only lines and angles.“Drive with your legs first,” he booms.“Keep that oar off the water. Pull that blade high into the body.”
But off the water, that all-business demeanor gives way to some playful banter with these boy-men, who call him J.D. Varsity captain Henry Goodhart, 17, describes Bridges as one of the best coaches he has had.“J.D. makes us competitive without burning us out, without driving us into the ground,” he says.“It's about pacing yourself.”
Over the years, Bridges' teams have won national-level medals. His coaching highlights from tenures at numerous clubs include four USRowing Club National Championships and medaling rowers at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and National Team trials. More than a dozen of the athletes he has trained in recent years row in Division I programs.
Says Bridges,“I never imagined I would be working with literally world-class collegiate athletes.”
â€”Lini S. Kadaba
Lini S. Kadaba, a former staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a freelance writer based in Newtown Square, Pa.
This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of Haverford magazine.