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USC vs. UH: Rivals on the Field, Partners Off

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Written by Chris Roberts, Assistant Sports Information Director

As USC and Hawaii traded offensive explosions in what has become a competitive rivalry between the two schools on the football field, one might be surprised to find out that the two programs are teammates off the field in one very special cause.

Once the tackling has stopped, the pads have come off and the final score has been tallied, all differences are put aside to rally around Swim With Mike, a charitable organization created to provide scholarships to students who have overcome life-threatening accidents or illnesses.
 
This year as Swim With Mike celebrated its 30th anniversary as well as its 10 millionth dollar raised, the program continues to grow nationwide in hopes of reaching even more students looking to pursue their educational hopes and dreams.

So as the excitement for the start of the 2010 college football season came to fruition for the Trojans and the Warriors in the islands of the Pacific, it also was a fitting time to celebrate the strides Swim With Mike has made over the years as well as the deserving individuals the program has touched.

During the third quarter of the school's highly-anticipated Sept. 2 matchup at Aloha Stadium, the cause took center stage. In a presentation featuring Swim With Mike co-founder and chairman Mike Nyeholt, this year's recipients were honored.  Previous recipient Tusi Mailo, a senior who attended BYU Hawaii and the brother of former USC offensive lineman Faaesea Mailo, was in attendance to congratulate Joe Broc, a senior from Hawaii Pacific who received a scholarship.  Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan and USC A.D. Pat Haden were on hand as well.

On April 23, the sixth annual Swim With Mike Hawaii raised $28,000, bringing the total amount raised at all the swims in 2010 to $1,003,330. In addition to the annual event at USC and now Hawaii, Swim With Mike has built strong relationships with Connecticut and Stanford, both of whom now host annual swims for the cause.

Originating at USC in 1981, Swim With Mike is an annual swim-a-thon fundraiser for the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund. At the event, student-athletes and special guests such as Will Ferrell, Jack Johnson, Christopher Reeve, Tommy Lasorda and President Ronald Reagan have donated their time and efforts.

Swim With Mike began as a fundraiser to purchase a specially equipped van for Nyeholt, a three-time All-American USC swimmer, who became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1981. At Nyeholt's request, the excess funds raised that year were used to aid other athletes trying to overcome paralyzing, physically disabling accidents or illnesses and return to school. With the help of Ron Orr, Nyeholt's teammate and now a USC associate athletic director, Swim With Mike was born the following year when Nyeholt returned to campus to swim laps.

Until recently, the scholarship fund was available only to USC students. However, the organization quickly realized the need to expand the program to qualified students who were not able to attend USC because of the need to be close their homes, doctors and support systems. With the assistance of former of Hawaii associate athletic director and current Hawaii Swim With Mike coordinator Kaia Hedlund, this vision became a reality.

In 1997, at an athletic awards banquet in Hawaii, Hedlund met Keith Kitamura, a graduating high school senior who had played multiple sports and had already been admitted to UH to play football and baseball. During Kitamura's senior year, he was involved in a car accident that left him a paraplegic.

It was at this event that Hedlund informed the Kitamura family of the Swim With Mike scholarship and encouraged them to apply.

Upon hearing that the scholarship could only be used at USC, the family declined the opportunity in order to remain close to home. It was clear to Swim With Mike Organizers that change was necessary.

 A year later, while on other business at USC, Hedlund decided to speak with Orr about the possibility of extending the program to other schools around the country. Interestingly, this very meeting also initiated the talks of a USC-Hawaii football matchup.

Fast forward to 2004 when Hedlund discovered that Kitamura was starting graduate school at UH and she reached out to him again, this time with better news. In March of 2005, the first Swim With Mike was held on the Hawaii campus and Kitamura was one of the recipients who received a much-deserved scholarship.

"College student-athletes from UH and USC receive athletic scholarships based on their athletic abilities," stated Hedlund. "It's great to see them rally around Swim With mike scholarship recipients, realizing that they too had the potential too become a college athlete but were dealt challenging circumstances." 

Nyeholt has devoted his life to the cause along with the help of many of his closest friends.  The program has now funded 101 college scholarships for students all over the nation, some coming from as far away as India. Nyeholt is heartfelt in his comments of a cause he holds so dear.

"To not be able to play the sport you love can be devastating, but my friend Ron Orr started Swim With Mike to prove there is a support system to moving on, especially when it comes to education," said Nyeholt. 

A charity that was founded after a tragic event has become a symbol of hope to so many. Despite past adversities, with hard work these courageous individuals can succeed in the classroom and in the real world.

As for the USC versus UH football game that stemmed from the program, that's just a little icing on the cake that everyone can enjoy.

For more information please visit www.swimwithmike.org or contact Kaia Hedlund at kaiahedlund@msn.com

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