In 1981, a benefit for injured USC swimming star Mike Nyeholt turned into an annual event for athletes.
As they were getting ready to leave the beach, he wanted to take a final dip into the ocean. Waist-deep in the water, he dove in and suddenly felt as if he had been punched in the face. He tried to stand, but nothing happened.
“My body wasn’t moving as I tried to get up,” said Nick Enriquez, who graduated last May from the Leventhal School of Accounting. “A rush of emotion and fear ran through my body and I knew I was paralyzed.”
It turned out that Enriquez hit a sand bar when he dove into the ocean, leaving him tetraplegic – losing movement in his upper and lower body.
“I asked God if I was going to live or die and somehow, I don’t know if the wave pushed me up or what, but I was able to get my mouth above the water and a German tourist and my girlfriend (at the time) helped me out,” Enriquez said.
Enriquez suffered a C4 Spinal Cord Injury, which means that the fourth vertebra down from the brain was injured. Enriquez says that the closer the injury is to the brain, the more mobility is lost. For example, Christopher Reeve suffered the worst SCI, injuring his C1 and C2 vertebrate during his horse riding accident.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, approximately 243,000 people in the United States have suffered an SCI. Since 1990, the causes of SCIs have been car accidents (40.9 percent), violence (21.6 percent), falls (22.4 percent), sports (7.5 percent) and others (7.6 percent). Law Offices of Fick and Petty Web site states that two-thirds of the sports-related injuries result from diving.
“It took awhile to sink in … but it’s the way life works out and I had to come to terms that it’s a new life,” said Enriquez, who is currently earning his law degree from Southwestern Law School.
“I didn’t let it stop me from what I wanted to be, because it’s important for me to pursue an education, have a family and make something of myself,” Enriquez said. “It makes it so much easier when you have support and that’s what Swim with Mike has done.”
Swim with Mike, named after Mike Nyeholt, started in 1981 as a one-time fundraising event and since then has evolved into an annual swim-a-thon for the Physically Challenged Athlete’s Scholarship Fund, which offers full-tuition and living-expense scholarships for athletes who had an illness or accident that left them disabled.
Their mission is “to provide financial resources for advanced education that pave the way for physically challenged athletes to overcome their tragedies and realize their full potential.”
So far, the organization has raised nearly $4 million, a third of which has come from alumni donations, and has given out 46 full scholarships.
“When a recipient gets injured, they aren’t really thinking about education because they are overwhelmed with medical bills and redoing the house to accommodate their needs, but education is the most important thing because it gets them back into mainstream,” said Ron Orr, Nyeholt’s former USC swimming teammate and now USC’s associate athletic director. “It gives them hope so they can participate in their recovery.”
Nyeholt, a three-time All-American USC swimmer, who at the height of his career was ranked ninth in the country and 13th in the world, was involved in a motorcycle accident in January 1981, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“There were lots of frustration following Mike’s accident and the teammates felt they wanted to do something for him,” Orr said.
The event, then called Swim For Mike, took place two months after the accident, and Nyeholt surprised everyone with an unannounced appearance, as the event was held the day of his release from the hospital.
“Ron organized it to raise money to help with the medical expenses I was going to have because of my injuries and to purchase an equipped van,” Nyeholt said. “They raised about $64,000, and I didn’t need all the money so I told Ron that we should put the rest of the money in a scholarship (for other disabled athletes).”
Together they set up the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund, which is the only one of its kind.
“The amount of overwhelming support I received in 1981 helped transform a devastating personal blow into a helping hand for many others,” Nyeholt said. “I want (our recipients) to know that they can draw energy and encouragement from the Swim With Mike family and continue obtaining a university education.”
In order to qualify for a scholarship, applicants must have suffered an illness or injury that resulted in a physical Disability which substantially limits major life activity; have participated in organized high school or college athletics prior to the illness or injury; meet admissions requirements of the selected university; and maintain a 2.5 GPA while enrolled.
Enriquez was a football and baseball varsity athlete as a sophomore in high school when the diving accident in 1996 changed his life.
He heard about the scholarship a month after the accident, when his family received a call from a family friend, who is a USC alumnus familiar with the program.
“If you can imagine this moment in time when our family has been turned upside down … and we receive a phone call offering this wonderful opportunity,” Enriquez said. “The burden of medical bills would have been too tremendous to pursue my dreams, goals and aspirations but thanks to (the scholarship), I was able to go to USC and go to Southwestern.”
“Going from being a standout athlete to having to rely on attendance and a wheelchair was a devastating and drastic accident … I was able to move on from the help and support from my family, friends and God, and Swim With Mike has made the transition easier,” Enriquez said. “I call it ‘Swim With Mike and Ron’ because they make Swim With Mike what it is today.”
The scholarship was originally for current and incoming USC students, but last year, it was extended to include students from other universities, partly because of the difficulty of gaining admittance into USC.
“It not like they say since you’re disabled, you can get this scholarship and get into the school,” said Ashley Olson, a junior majoring in communication. “You have to get in on your own merit and you have to have the credentials to get into USC.”
The summer before her sophomore year, Olson, a team captain and top defensive player for her freshman basketball team, was driving with her parents and sister to a family reunion.
They were driving through a bad rainstorm when the car hydroplaned and fell off something that was “bigger than a ditch but smaller than a cliff.”
Olson, who had taken off her seatbelt a minute earlier to pick something off the floor, was thrown out of the car.
The accident left her Paraplegic – paralyzed from the waist down. Ashley’s mother sustained injuries that left her severely crippled and her father was killed.
“People who investigated the accident said that if I had my seatbelt on, then I would have died because when the car flipped, it originally landed on the side my father sat,” Olsen said. “I would have died on impact.”
The community of Pleasanton, Calif., helped raise $500,000 and helped remodel the Olsons’ two-story home so that it would be wheelchair-accessible.
“It was being reborn, learning how to dress, sit up and shower,” Olson said. “It was a huge and total shock and I had to physically learn how to do everything differently.
“I was really down for the first two months and I thought my situation was pretty bad. But the people I’ve met during Physical Therapy, who are quadriplegic or burn-victim patients make me realize that I am fortunate.
“From meeting the amazing high-spirited people in those types of situation … I have a greater appreciation for life and being able to live.”
Olson said she is grateful for the opportunities the scholarship has provided her.
“It’s a gift to help me succeed … for a better future and a better career,” Olson said. “Being on my own has helped me grow and be more accepting of my disability.”
Chad Hendrickson, a senior majoring in civil engineering, was the MVP on his high school water polo team. He broke his fifth and sixth Vertebrae while diving into the ocean and was hospitalized for six months. Afterward, he underwent three months of intense Rehabilitation.
“(The scholarship) provides an opportunity for people who might otherwise not have one,” Hendrickson said. “It made me motivated to do more after (the accident) to go to USC because I wouldn’t have been able to go … without the scholarship.”
“It shows you what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it,” Hendrickson said.
On Saturday, April 17, 2004, USC will award 11 Swim With Mike Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarships to disabled athletes at McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
“Understand the humility the recipients have after the accident and then being humbled with this offer … the magnitude of it and the generosity of it is what’s truly amazing about this,” Enriquez said. “The volunteers are amazing; they are the ones who do all the work.”
More than 30 volunteers help make the event a yearly success.
“The recipients go up and talk about what this has done for their lives, and to be a little part of that, it’s been so rewarding,” volunteer Claire Snow said.
Orr said the day will feature Pete Carroll and the Trojan football team competing in a relay race with the USC Song Leaders, as well as a kids’ corner with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, an Olympic swim clinic coached by USC Olympians and the USC swim team, a barbecue, a silent auction and a raffle.
“The university is overwhelmingly supportive; (Trojans) donate and participate in the events,” Orr said. “This exemplifies the Trojan network – something like this wouldn’t work at another university.”
Actress-philanthropist Holly Robinson Peete will accept this year’s Gerald and Betty Ford People Helping People Award, which is presented annually to an individual who has been an active member of the community and who has given his or her time to a wide range of charitable organizations.
“You don’t have to donate anything. Just show up and feel humbled and see the generosity that people have,” Enriquez said. “I’ve seen people come once and they return year after year and it’s a life-changing moment for them. It’s a beautiful organization.”
By Grace Choe