Helping physically challenged former athletes
Swim with Mike is a charity that provides college scholarships for physically challenged former athletes. It was started in 1981 as Swim for Mike and was organized to raise funds to purchase a specially equipped van for former USC swimmer Mike Nyeholt. But when a quadriplegic former college swimmer is able to swim again, as Nyeholt was the next year, you change the name to Swim with Mike. Nyeholt has swum in one of the event’s many fundraising swims each year since 1982.
Nyeholt, 56, is a three time All-American swimmer and a current member of Rose Bowl Aquatic Masters. He was paralyzed as a result of a motorcycle accident in January of 1981, three years after graduating from USC. Three hundred swimmers participated in the inaugural event just three months later and raised $58,000. Fellow USC swimmer Ron Orr, the event’s organizer, believes so many people came out because it was just a “close knit community of people who swam together in age group and college in So Cal.” Since that amount was more than Nyeholt needed for a van, he and his family decided to set “something up for other people.” Nyeholt explains that he was grateful for his education and felt it was what allowed him to overcome his accident and live a successful life.
Swim with Mike has grown from a single event designed to raise funds for a single swimmer to a national series of fundraising swims, and it attracts Masters swimmers, former Olympians, college swimmers, age group swimmers and recreational swimmers. Everyone who participates is moved by the recipients, young kids who had the world by the tail and then lost their physical mobility due to an accident or illness.
Orr, 56 and a member of Southern California Aquatic Masters, says that “on Mike’s first visit out of the hospital, he came to the swim and he said he would swim it next year.” For that first event, they got messages of support from Diana Ross and Ronald Reagan. Still, he says “it is bizarre how this thing has spread.” It was for “people who had it and then lost it. It has just continued to grow. We didn’t know there was such a need. The swimming community came together, and Masters swimmers were involved since the beginning,” explains Orr.
Both Orr and Nyeholt are proud of how low their administrative costs are. “Over 90 percent of the money raised goes to scholarships,” says Orr. The number of events has grown because each is “whatever you want it to be. The recipients generate the events,” says Orr. “They want to give back.”
Nyeholt emphasizes that “the recipients have to maintain their grades just as if they were maintaining an athletic scholarship eligibility, which is not that easy when you are disabled.”
“I never knew anyone with a disability until I had my accident,” Nyeholt says in a moment of reflection. “I absolutely never thought it would get this big. I consider myself blessed that Swim with Mike took off. It helped me get through this. I had to put on a strong face on an annual basis even though I was depressed. One bad event has helped so many.”
Nyeholt says he just swims to stay in shape now. He does a straight 2500 yard swim each year as his contribution to Swim with Mike.
Kaia Hedlund, 57 and a part of the Southern Pacific LMSC, is director of recipient relations for Swim with Mike. Hedlund trains with and coaches for Long Beach State Masters. She swam at USC with Nyeholt and Orr and has been involved with Swim with Mike since its inception. “I have been involved for such a long time because of the impact I see on the scholarship recipients,” she says. Hedlund was instrumental is starting a Swim with Mike event in Hawaii when she lived there.
2012 marks the 32nd straight year the series of fundraising swims has been held. In those 32 years, the charity has raised over $12 million. The total scholarship amount awarded for the school year 2011-2012 was nearly $796,000, and that money was split between 49 recipients.
While swims are held across the country very spring to benefit Swim with Mike, the southern California area is still the hub. Chad Durieux, 32, is a member and coach of Rose Bowl Masters, explains his team's involvement: “Mike’s been swimming with RBAC for years and a lot of our swimmers have some affiliation with USC.”
This is the second year his facility and team have hosted a week long fundraising swim to benefit Swim with Mike. The process is simple: for the week, anyone can swim at any time and they can either donate their own money to the charity or ask friends to sponsor their laps. Money is donated through the website. RBAC just provides the lane space and encouragement.
The RBAC event raised about $7,000. “It’s really fun,” says Durieux. “Everybody comes to have a good time. It’s mostly just good honest people working together to help some kids out. Most days, one of the recipients comes and sometimes swims. It’s motivational and amazing.” (The photo at right shows recipient Mike Dieringer talking with Swim with Mike participants at RBAC.)
For additional information about Swim with Mike, or if you’re interested in hosting a fundraising swim or just doing your own swim in honor of Nyeholt or the scholarship recipients, visit swimwithmike.org.
- Human Interest