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The Skater Kid Finds His Tribe

Born with spina bifida, Josh Bridgewater never felt like he belonged until he stepped on a skateboard for the first time.

It’s not uncommon to hear Josh Bridgewater say: “Tell me what I can’t do, and I’ll tell you when I’m done doing it.” But by that time, you’ll already know it’s true.

His radiant personality is what captures all the attention, so it’s not evident just by looking at him, but Josh came into the world not expected to live, let alone live well. Yet today, he’s the oldest skater with spina bifida in the world

Kathy Bridgewater, Josh’s mother, was just sixteen years old when she got pregnant, which was challenge enough. But worse news was to come. “They told her my life was not going to be good,” says Josh. “My spinal cord was sticking out of my body. I would not walk. Would not get married. Would not amount to a whole lot. ”

Josh had myelomeningocele, the most serious form of spina bifida in which the backbone and spinal cord do not close before birth. It affects 1 in 4000 children yearly.

Josh Bridgewater.

Against her doctors’ recommendations, Kathy gave birth when she was 17. Immediately after, Josh had his first surgery, which successfully put his spinal cord back in his body. “My earliest memories were hospital appointments: testing, poking, prodding, having my gait analyzed,” says Josh. He spent time and out of the spina bifida clinic with other kids who got around in wheelchairs or walkers, but had a hard time relating. “I didn’t see the similarity, but maybe I didn’t want to,” he remembers.

Yet the similarity was real. Because of his condition, Josh was skinny and weak, with bowed legs and partial paralysis from the waist down. He could easily get cuts on his extremities, and start bleeding without feeling it. A lack of bowel and bladder control required diaper-wearing and an external urine bag, and contributed to significant insecurities and challenges for an adolescent boy. Very visible accidents were common. He became a target for bullies. “I don’t hold grudges – these were adolescent kids,” Josh asserts. But things were not good. He was a kid without a tribe.

He was a kid without a tribe.

Everything changed at age nine, when Josh got on his stepfather’s skateboard for the first time. He had to sit on it to move, but it set into motion a positive avenue for both physical and emotional healing. He learned how to ride standing up. “The doctors were amazed,” he recalls, “though some of them wished I wasn’t doing it!” Through skateboarding discovered a small like-minded crew, and found something that could transcended the negativity.  

The next “life-changer” surgery was at seventeen. No more external urine bag; he got an artificial urinary sphincter. Roughhousing wouldn’t be as much of a concern now, and skateboarding could get more assertive.

He was now a young man with a future he wasn’t supposed to have.

Josh admits to a couple of suicide attempts, a lot of bad decisions, and substantial mental disrupt during those years. He had deep emotional wounds. He hadn’t dated. His social life was insecure. 

Josh tries to inspire other kids who have spina bifida to live bigger than their diagnosis.

He had been watching other people with disabilities (“no one in particular, but as a group”). They were doing things and getting by. So one day, tired of the emotional rollercoaster, Josh resolved to start “rocking at living.”

Skateboarding was the key. He focused on being as good as possible: progress, but not perfection. Given his catalog of physical issues–“balance issues, no real calf muscles, crooked feet, bowed legs, lack of feeling, curled and missing toes,” Josh nonchalantly lists–it might take him ten times longer to get a move right. but he persevered. Josh’s determination got the attention of pro skaters like Mike Vallely, Lance Mountain, Ray Barbee who became mentors and friends. 

Josh and his wife, Shawna.

His greatest support, though, comes from his wife, Shawna. They met via email through a business connection. Because of his spina bifida, he “dumped everything on her and gave her a million outs” during their online relationship, but after two years, he moved to Long Beach, California to marry her in 2010. 

Living in the beach community of southern California gave Josh access to many skateboarding opportunities. He earned a spot on the Adaptive Action Sports Skate Team, a team of athletes with birth defects or missing limbs. Through them, Josh then earned his first sponsorship at the age of 41 through Half Dead Skateboard, which has since grown into an entire network of supporters.

Today, skateboarding serves as both a means of physical and emotional therapy for Josh. He has to be hyper-focused, especially on 12-foot concrete  “Even with my attitude there are somethings I just can’t do,” he admits. “But I get creative, and customize my skating to my abilities.” 

Do rad things and rad things will happen to you.

Skateboarding isn’t the only thing Josh does: he’s also an accomplished snowboarder, surfer, and mountain biker. Pretty much any adaptive action sport Josh can find, he does. A prolific sharer on social media, he has also started a line of t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the motto PMA (“Positive Mental Attitude”) as a way to cover his medical bills. Through this, the #pmaalltheway hashtag has become a a Josh-generated movement for  folks and families refusing to let physical and emotional challenges get the best of them.

“Do rad things and rad things will happen to you,” is how Josh sums up his life. After decades of “ridicule, failure, bullying, abuses, depression,” he says, “it’s about getting through it and standing on your own.”