When a motorcycle accident left swimmer Mike Nyeholt paralyzed, he thought his life was over. But for him and others with similar disabilities, it was only beginning...
Ron Orr, left, Mike Nyeholt
hen Mike Nyeholt roared off down a dirt bike trail one January day back in 1981, he was looking ahead to a life whose possibilities seemed endless. He was 24 years old, handsome and athletic; he had a degree in finance from USC, where he had been a three-time All-American swimmer, ranked ninth in the U.S. and 13th in the world at the height of his career, and had competed in the 1976 Olympic trials.
But on that fateful day his bike went off the trail, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. His family, friends and former teammates rallied to his side; but, as he began to recover and adapt to his new life, it became clear that he would need transportation – in the form of an expensive, specially equipped van.
The 1975 USC Swim Team. Mike Nyeholt is front row, fourth from left; Ron Orr is front row, far right.
“Since Mike and many of his friends were swimmers, we came up with the idea of a swim-a-thon,” says Ron Orr ’79, a teammate of Mike’s in both high school and college who is now associate athletic director at USC. “We called it ‘Swim For Mike.’ At the time, Mike was still in the hospital, and the plan was that we’d show him a video of the fund-raiser the next week.”
The event was successful beyond their expectations. “We raised $58,000 in what was supposed to be a one-time event, ” Orr says. “The amount was more than we needed for Mike’s van.”
And Mike himself surprised everyone by making an appearance at the event. Moved by the overwhelming response to his need, he promised that he would personally swim in the future to raise money for other physically challenged athletes. At his suggestion, the excess funds from that first swim were used to create the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund at USC, the only one of its kind in the country, and plans were begun to make the swim an annual event.
True to his word, the very next year after his accident, Mike Nyeholt was in the water with the other swimmers, helping raise money for the scholarship fund. From Swim For Mike, the preposition-changed event was appropriately renamed Swim With Mike.

ince that first swim in March 1981, more than 3,000 swimmers and 10,000 donors from 20 states have participated in the all-volunteer event, raising a total of $1.5 million. Additional support has been provided by two former United States presidents (Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan), numerous film and television stars and professional athletes, and corporate supporters such as GTE, Capital Group, Inc., QuikSilver, Disney, McDonalds, Rykoff-Sexton Inc. and Speedo, among many others. And through their efforts, 30 physically challenged athletes have received scholarships to USC, providing full tuition, housing, books and on-campus transportation.
Today Mike Nyeholt walks with the aid of crutches, lives in San Gabriel and is a vice president with Capital Guardian Trust Company, where he is responsible for servicing clients and sales for public pension plans. An avid sports fan, he attends “almost all” USC football and basketball games. His family, which includes two brothers, one sister, six nephews and two nieces, participates in Swim With Mike each year.
Not only did he put his own life back on track, but – with the help of friends such as Ron Orr – he transformed a devastating personal blow into a huge helping hand for many others.
“The incredible outpouring of support I received that
first year motivated me to return the gift and help others who are facing similar challenges,” he says. “The swim made all the difference in moving forward with my life after the accident.”
The funds raised by the swim are critical to making the program’s altruism optimal, but this is not its only goal. Nyeholt’s description of the swim that bears his name is direct and unequivocal: “It’s really a support group. It’s not just a vehicle of financial provision for an education – it’s a network of individuals who lend time and energy to one another for encouragement.”

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