At 24, All-American swimmer Mike Nyeholt was enjoying the benefits of his chosen sport: It had earned him a USC scholarship, enabled him to travel the world for competitive events and kept him in shape. “But back then, it was a bit of a job,” Nyeholt says. “Every morning you'd wake up and have to do laps.”
Little did he know that one sunny day, 10 minutes into dirt-biking at Waterwheel Camp, north of Blythe, a small jump would send him airborne, catapult him over the handlebars, land him on his head and leave him unable to move from the chest down. “I ended up with an incomplete fracture of my vertebra, which categorized me as a quadriplegic,” he says.
At White Memorial Hospital, he was confronted by a shocking prognosis: paralysis from the chest down. Depressed, the recent USC business-school grad looked to what he perceived as a dreary future: months of rehab and mounting medical expenses.
That's when Ron Orr stepped in. The then–assistant director of Annual Giving at USC decided to hold a swim-a-thon to honor his hospital-bound buddy's athletic career, as well as raise money to buy him a specially equipped van.
Two months later, Swim for Mike took place at the Industry Hills Golf Club pool. A crowd of 300 showed their support by watching sponsored teams and individuals do laps, but the most inspirational moment came when Nyeholt made a surprise appearance by ambulance. Upon discovering that proceeds had reached $58,000 — far more than what was needed for the van — he suggested that the rest go to future swim-a-thons to provide scholarships for disabled athletes. He also promised the unthinkable: “I'll swim next year.”
Nyeholt and Orr (now USC associate athletic director) created a scholarship fund that gained campus-wide support. At the following year's event, held at the USC pool, Nyeholt hit the water, albeit somewhat unconventionally. With regained upper-body strength, he did, indeed, swim. “I put a pull buoy, which was belted to me, between my legs; it acted as a flotation device to support my lower body,” he explains. “I pulled with my arms.”
From that point on, the event became known as Swim With Mike. Now in its 30th year, the annual fund-raiser is still held at USC and has turned into a daylong party with belly-flop contests, cheerleader inner-tube races, diving exhibitions, an Olympian swim clinic, the Trojan marching band, celebrity appearances, and sponsors including the Annenberg Foundation and Wells Fargo.
The organization has raised $9.6 million for physically challenged athletes at 34 universities for a total of 93 scholarships. No other organization like it exists in the country, for very specific reasons.
“Scholarships are awarded only to candidates who qualify academically for a particular school, need financial assistance and participated in a sport, even if it was Little League,” Nyeholt explains. “That's because athletes already know about perseverance and desire. Part of the mind-set is that they instinctively know how to use their athletics to go beyond their challenges.”
Now 52 and a senior VP at Capital Guardian Trust Company in L.A., Nyeholt uses a wheelchair, although he can walk limited distances on crutches. Most mornings he can be found before work at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, where he typically does his upper-body 2,000-meter freestyle — a mile and a quarter.
He continues to inspire others every year by swimming 100 lengths of the USC pool — about a mile and a half — at Swim With Mike. “What I can do today I attribute to my athletic background,” he says. “You can never stop believing.”
For information, visit swimwithmike.org.