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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

It's No Accident That Program Is Thriving

April 11, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

It was an accident, of course. An accident that sent Mike Nyeholt tumbling over the handles of a dirt bike in the desert. And it was an accident, really, that what started as a fund-raiser to help Nyeholt buy the equipment that would help him adapt to his new circumstances as a paralyzed former college athlete has become a scholarship source for newly handicapped athletes.

It was an accident when Nick Enriquez, a football and baseball player at Glendora High, dived in the ocean off Newport Beach and smashed his head into the sand. And it was an accident when Suzy Kim, a two-sport athlete at Laguna Hills High who played soccer at California and was in her third year of medical school, was driven into the sand while body surfing off Laguna Beach.

But then it was also an accident when Enriquez and Kim received scholarships from the Swim With Mike Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund.

Which means, Enriquez says, that there are good accidents as well as bad.

Next Saturday, the 19th Swim With Mike clinic will take place at USC's McDonald's Swim Stadium. Former Olympic swimmers Janet Evans, John Naber, Brad Bridgewater and Bruce Furniss as well as current world champion Lenny Krayzelburg will swim laps to raise money for the Swim With Mike fund. So will members of the Trojan football team and friends and family of scholarship winners, and volunteers from everywhere.

Nyeholt, 42 and a successful money manager at Capital Group, will also swim. He can get around with crutches, though when he's in a hurry, Nyeholt is perfectly willing to use a wheelchair. "Time is money, you know," he says, then laughs. No time for pride when money-making could be happening.

Once Nyeholt was a swimmer for USC. He qualified for the 1976 Olympic trials too, but when college was over, he gave up competitive swimming and tried to find a career he loved. The search hadn't been going great and Nyeholt would burn off some of his athletic competitiveness with skiing or dirt biking. One afternoon of biking, Nyeholt hit a bump, fell, landed on his neck and couldn't move.

Nyeholt moves now. The accident had broken his neck but not his spirit or the spirit of his buddies from USC, especially Ron Orr. Realizing that his friend would need financial help, Orr brought together USC swimmers past and present to swim laps and earn money for Nyeholt. So much money was earned, "more than I needed or ever imagined we could raise," Nyeholt says, and then Orr had an idea. "Let's start a college scholarship for injured athletes," Orr said to Nyeholt.

Bingo.

There was no grand plan, just this spur-of-the-moment thought, yet over the last 18 years more than $2.2 million has been raised and more than 30 scholarships have been provided for physically challenged athletes.

Enriquez, a freshman business major, and Kim, now doing her Ob-Gyn rotation in the USC medical school, are two of the newest recipients.

As a sophomore starter on the varsity baseball and football teams at Glendora, Enriquez certainly planned on attending college with scholarship help. Athletic scholarship help. Just before his junior year in high school, August 1996, Enriquez and his girlfriend and her family went swimming at Newport Beach. One last dive, Enriquez said he wanted to take. "I walked out to where the water was waist-high," Enriquez said, "and then I dove."

All Enriquez can figure is that he hit a shallow spot. When his head hit the bottom, Enriquez couldn't move. He said a prayer that he could get his head above water. "I think I knew what happened to me but I wasn't ready to die," Enriquez says.

Not once has Enriquez been depressed, he says from his dorm room at USC, where the scholarship helps Enriquez pay for a live-in aide and for an assistant to take notes for him in class. Enriquez is a quadriplegic, but he decided immediately that he would still go to college, "that I would still have a life."

Someone from the Swim With Mike group read about Enriquez's accident, and the scholarship was offered. "That was such a great day," he says. "My mom cried. I'd always been a Trojan fan and had always wanted to play for the Trojans. I think I could have. But we could never have afforded for me to go here."

Kim says there was a time after her accident when she wasn't sure if she could continue medical school. "I always expected to walk back into class," she says. "I didn't think I could do it this way."

The scholarship money helps pay for things like a special, stand-up wheelchair that allows Kim to do her surgical rotations. Kim was originally told she would not have function of her arms, but she does. She believes, still, that some day she will walk.

In the meantime, Enriquez and Kim believe their athletic background, which taught them about discipline and competition, setting goals and winning, has helped them adapt.

"Absolutely," Enriquez says. "I've been used to working my body hard all my life. This has been no different. You know, some people think this accident was all bad. But it hasn't been."

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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