The Agony and the Ecstasy

Mark Bridge doesn’t need to look in the dictionary for a definition of excruciating. A look in the mirror will suffice.

Mark Bridge, foreground, and Noah Christian

Mark Bridge, foreground, and Noah Christian

Bridge’s body bears more scars than Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, reminders of a medical history that has kept him on a first-name basis with area surgeons. Which is why his NCAA Division II national championship in the javelin must be viewed not only as a triumph over the competition but as a triumph over adversity.

Consider that only six months before, Bridge needed surgery to repair the ulnar nerve, the ulnar vein, and three tendons in his forearm following an off-campus mishap that nearly required the amputation of his hand. Or that he needed a hernia operation in the spring of 2001, which forced him to miss the season. Or that he once cracked a kneecap in a campus fall. Or that he competed throughout his senior year with a partially torn ligament in his throwing elbow, which necessitated postseason surgery. Small wonder Bridge grimaced and gritted his teeth with every heave at nationals.

If his final shot at an NCAA championship was a test of character, then Bridge aced it. The three-time All-American from Baldwin turned the agony into the ecstasy.

“He’s just amazing, the amount of pain he can withstand and the injuries he can overcome and still perform at a national-class level,” says field coach Brian Spickler, an IUP decathlon All-American in 1997 and 1998.  “He’s got a great mental ability to block that stuff out. I mean, he competed with a torn ligament in his elbow. If you would tell people he threw with a torn ligament in his elbow, they would never believe it.”

Not after Bridge positively blew away the competition at Angelo State (Tex.), uncorking the five longest throws, including a toss of 228 feet, five inches that secured the fourth NCAA crown by an IUP javelin thrower since 1987. He positively dominated. Teammate Noah Christian finished a distant second, sixteen feet behind.

“Mark really deserved it,” says Christian, a junior who won a state high school championship while competing for nearby Homer-Center. “He’s really worked hard for it. I was definitely glad to see him win it. A lot of people asked me, ‘Are you upset you didn’t win?’ Definitely not, especially having another shot at it next year. I was probably happier for Mark than he was.”

Indeed, when victory was assured, Bridge was as impassive as a Buckingham Palace guard.

“He was pretty cool about it, because it wasn’t like it was a nail biter,” says head coach Ed Fry. “Nobody was close to him. It was just a matter of, OK, when’s it gonna be over and where’s Noah gonna finish?”

Given his history on the national stage, Bridge would have been excused had he backflipped his way to the medals ceremony. Twice before, he’d finished second, nosed out by an opponent in the final round of throws. Excruciating? That hurt more than any of his assorted physical traumas.

“It was so heartbreaking,” says Bridge, the 2002 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference male Athlete of the Year in outdoor track. “The first time I came out of nowhere, so I was happy just to be in that position. The second time I really thought nothing but a win would be acceptable, so when I got snuffed out I was extremely agitated. I was angry because my family had come out [to Emporia, Kans.] to see me, and I felt like I had let them down.”

He vowed there would be no letdown in 2001. Unfortunately, Bridge didn’t even get the opportunity to compete.

“I had hernia surgery in the spring,” he explains. “I wasn’t gonna get it done, but I heard about somebody who ruptured a hernia and almost died and that kind of scared me. So I decided to get it done. I thought it would be a quick process, but it was an open surgery instead of a ’scope, so it took a lot longer to heal than I had hoped.”

Bridge took a redshirt year and fixed his sights on 2002. This time, nothing could prevent his march toward a title—not opponents, not December forearm surgery, not the torn elbow ligament that at times made it feel as if someone were jabbing an ice pick into the joint.

The strongest challenge was provided by Christian, like Bridge no stranger to the O.R. After Christian needed surgery to mend a partially torn rotator cuff in 2001, there weren’t any guarantees he’d return to form in 2002.

“I’ve had shoulder surgery myself and coming back from that’s really tough,” Spickler says. “You never know how it’s gonna go. Some guys never regain what they had; some guys come back full strength. So for him to take second in the nation, that was great.”

Especially given the circumstances. Christian fouled on his first throw and didn’t get much distance on his second, so everything hinged on the third. Only the top eight competitors advance to the finals, where they’re awarded three additional attempts. Christian was on the verge of bombing out.

“All I could think of was how bad it was going to feel if I didn’t make this throw,” he says. “I had to just kind of slow down a little bit and make sure I got a mark. Luckily, I pulled it out.”

Christian’s clutch toss of 212-5 was good for second place, enabling IUP track and field competitors to finish 1-2 in an event at nationals for the first time in school history. What’s more, Christian and Bridge boosted IUP’s total of All-America honors in the javelin to thirty, highlighted by five national champions.

Funny thing, no one knows why the program produces elite throwers in such staggering numbers. Fry shrugs his shoulders when asked, Christian shakes his head, and Spickler suggests, in jest, that “maybe it’s the water.” Like Stonehenge, it’s something of a mystery.

“Good throwers just wind up here,” Bridge says. “I wasn’t recruited much out of high school, so I wound up coming here more for the academic program than for the track program. I didn’t even know about IUP’s javelin tradition.”

Not only has he since learned about it, he’s contributed to it. Bridge overcame a litany of medical miseries to triumph on the national stage, transforming the agony into the ecstasy.

Now when he looks in the mirror, Mark Bridge sees more than a multitude of scars. He sees a champion.

NCAA Javelin Champions by School, 1987–

IUP 4
Angelo State (Texas) 3
Ashland (Ohio) 3
Cal State–Los Angeles 1
Fort Hays State (Kans.) 1
Pittsburg State (Kans.) 1
Southern Connecticut State 1
Slippery Rock 1
Texas A&M–Kingsville 1

IUP’s National Javelin Champions

1973 John Elliot, NAIA
1987 Dave Maudie, NCAA
1990 Jeff Neral, NCAA
1993 Bob Vranich, NCAA
2002 Mark Bridge, NCAA