Mike Nyeholt keeps on swimming.
The former three-time All-American swimmer, who was paralyzed from the chest down following a motorcycle accident 37 years ago, is in the pool three, sometimes four times a week. Despite some shoulder injuries, the Pasadena resident still hits the water and is a familiar face to anyone doing laps at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center pool.
He has a lot to swim for. This year, his Swim With Mike nonprofit is bigger than ever, helping 56 physically disabled athletes find new purpose in life through scholarships at colleges nationwide. The Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund, based at USC, is the only kind in the country, raising more than $19.6 million and sending recipients to 104 universities across the country since its inception.
“It’s been an ongoing part of my recovery for 37 years and a constant source of positive work and reason to continue to move forward,” said Nyeholt, who is chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit. “Our event supports former athletes so they can make something of their lives, help them transition and gives a support network. After one of these debilitating accidents, you don’t necessarily want to live, but when you have this support network you don’t want to let folks down either.”
The event kicks off with a week of swimming every year at the RBAC, but the nonprofit’s fundraising mission has become year-round, with even “Eat With Mike” and running, walking, rolling and floating events held across the country.
Nyeholt inspired the first fundraiser in 1991, after he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. The USC swimmer’s friends and teammates rallied around him while he was still in the hospital. Childhood friend and his former USC roommate Ron Orr had the idea to raise money to help buy him a van with a lift, calling the event “Swim for Mike,” which raised $58,000, much more than was needed for the van. Nyeholt surprised everyone that day when he was released from the hospital for the first time and showed up at the event, smiling and shaking hands, and suggested giving the leftover money to someone else in need. He also promised to swim by the following year.
Hence, Swim With Mike began and has never looked back. It has awarded about 220 total scholarships, and alumni have gone on to thrive in spite of paralysis, amputation and blindness to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, actors, accountants and teachers.
Earlier this football season, a Swim With Mike scholarship recipient named Jake Olson made headlines when he became the first blind long snapper for USC, where he joined the Trojans as a walk-on. Olson has been blind since age 12 due to retinal cancer. However, he always golfed and played sports and passionately followed USC football.
“These kids are amazing individuals — it’s incredibly inspiring to see how they overcome some of the most devastating accidents,” said Orr, Swim With Mike executive director and USC senior associate athletic director. “The scholarship is something they can do on their own, because even though they might need to have people who dress them every morning, this is something that gives them independence.”
Over the years, the nonprofit was able to extend its scholarships to those beyond USC’s walls, since not everyone is able to get accepted at the university, and oftentimes, someone surviving a debilitating accident needs to live close to their family and support network.
Former local resident Sam Paneno was the first to get a scholarship elsewhere, at UC Davis law school, after suffering an injury as a UC Davis running back in 1999. The former La Cañada Flintridge High School football standout suffered a dislocated knee injury so damaging, a severed artery resulted in the amputation of his lower leg. But Paneno, who has gone on to represent foster children and their special education needs, said his lifelong passion was stoked in part by his accident.
“My injury was the catalyst for me wanting to advance the rights of disabled people,” said Paneno, who is a director at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit that protects the rights of abused and impoverished children throughout Los Angeles County. “[The scholarship] enabled me to go to law school for free. Without the ability to not worry about my finances, it would have been a much more difficult decision to work for a nonprofit. Part of that experience is paying it forward.”
Paneno has never really left the field, and with a prosthetic he runs marathons and rock climbs. Another inspiration for him, he said, was seeing his younger brother Rocky Paneno survive and recover from a near-fatal accident only a year after his own.
Rocky Paneno, while a student at Pasadena City College, fell from a six-floor balcony when the railing gave way during a school trip to Italy. He lost his kidneys and was paralyzed from the waist down. After a long road to recovery, he too received a Swim With Mike scholarship, and went to USC to get a degree in mathematics and teaching. He has also given back to the community, choosing to teach at a high-needs high school in downtown Los Angeles.
He said the Swim With Mike organization has turned into a huge support network, not just for those with disabling injuries, but for the families who support them as well.
“I feel like you’re a part of the organization almost for life,” said Rocky Paneno, also a former LCHS football player. “Recovery can be overwhelming. One of the many facets for anyone going through life after an accident is that the family and friends also go through an awful lot. The organization provides a real support network.”
That network includes the Swim With Mike family Facebook page, a site where family members of recipients can go to ask about handicapper equipment, therapies, medicines or just get emotional support.
Since all the recipients are former athletes, they share the sorrows of losing those abilities, but also use the discipline they learned in sports to move forward in recovery.
“We were able to fall back on the discipline we had as athletes,” said Rocky Paneno, who is to be married this coming month. “I think what draws many to the foundation is that all of us who have been athletes know what it is to push through the pain, and in recovery we see it as just another obstacle to overcome; it’s our new sport if you will.”
For Rocky, even going to class was at times excruciating. But the mathematician said he worked it out in his head, down to how much each class cost and how many donors had contributed to putting him there.
“With the scholarship, what they’re really offering you with an education is a chance to catapult you to another path, it can move your life in another direction,” he said.
Nyeholt and Orr have said the goal now is to grow an endowment for the scholarship fund, from its current $3 million to $10 million, ensuring future scholarships for athletes suffering a disability.
“In the early years of recovery, you have about 360 bad days; it takes a lot of years before you have 360 good days,” said Nyeholt, who is now retired from a 25-year career at Capital Group. “Whether or not you walk away from an accident, there is a lot to deal with mentally. The scholarships give those with athletic backgrounds a reason to keep setting goals and motivate them to excel.”
For anyone interested in holding a Swim With Mike satellite fundraising event, or to donate to the organization, visit swimwithmike.org.