Editor’s Note: Steve Dalton is a former athlete who is now a wheelchair user and returned to college with the help of www.swimwithmike.org, a scholarship fund for college athletes who have become physically-challenged. Swim With Mike gives scholarships for these athletes to return to school to obtain new career and life skills after their injury.
The Time Before Steve’s Motorcycle Accident
I graduated high school in 1985, but decided college wasn’t the route I wanted to take. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I took a test at a junior college, and the counselor there told me, “You’d be a great brick layer.” I knew I didn’t need a college education to be a brick layer.
I had a keen interest in IT when I was a junior high school student, and we always had computers in my house. In the 1990s, I worked for a computer software company as a warehouse supervisor and shipping supervisor. While I was there, we computerized our warehouse systems, we communicated with our forklift operators with wireless communications, and we managed a massive inventory through a computerized system.
When our company was acquired and shut down in 1998, one of my coworkers suggested that I retrain in the computer industry. So, I received some formalized training with money from the unemployment system. I went to Empire College in Santa Rosa, California, that offered career training programs for today’s in-demand careers. I graduated valedictorian, and I received a certificate in computer support.
Next I took a job working for The Trust for Public Land, a non-profit. While working there, in 2002, I had a motorcycle accident that left me with a spinal cord injury at the T4 level. I was paralyzed from the waist down.
The Day That Changed Steve’s Life
I was out on a ride with friends. I was going too fast, and I lost control of my motorcycle. When my motorcycle crashed, I was thrown off the motorcycle and into a hill. When I opened my eyes, my friends were standing over me asking, “Are you okay?” So, I did a quick extremity check to see what parts of my body I could move. But I couldn’t feel or move my legs.
I told my friends to call 911 and tell the operator I couldn’t feel or move my legs. I was Red Cross first aid-certified. Immediately, I recognized that if I couldn’t move my legs, I probably had a spinal cord injury. While on my back, looking straight up at the sky, I went through the step-by-step training I had received from the Red Cross on what to do when you come up on an accident, and the victim couldn’t move some portions of his or her body.
Although I couldn’t feel my body below my chest, I could feel a very large rock under me where I was lying.
About 40 minutes after my accident, the volunteer fire department arrived. About an hour after my accident, a spinal injury team from the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center arrived in a helicopter. They loaded me into the helicopter, and I was flown there to San Jose, California.
The first 10 days at the hospital I was in the specialty care unit. They stabilized my broken spine by inserting Harrington rods, stainless steel devices. While my body healed from the operation, a cast stabilized my torso. Ten days later I was transferred down to the rehabilitation floor of the hospital, where I spent the next five weeks learning the basics of my health care and mobility. Then I went home.
I wasn’t sure how my life would change after the accident. But luckily I had an employer who was willing to hold my job until I once again could return to work.
The non-profit told me, “Take as much time as you need to recover. Your job will be waiting on you when your recovery’s over.”
That statement took a huge weight off my shoulders. Because Santa Clara Valley Medical Center had an active peer support group, I had the opportunity to talk with and get to know people who had been living with a spinal cord injury for years. I began to learn what their lives were like after their injuries. They helped me see the possibilities of what my life could be like. However, my wife, at that time, was seriously impacted by my injury and had a difficult time coping with it.
Very early in my hospital stay, I realized I might never walk again. So, I approached my disability and rehab with the thoughts of, “What can I do today that I couldn’t do yesterday?” and, “What can I do better today than I could do it yesterday?” When I told my wife that I was probably never going to walk again, she told me, “I can’t believe you’re giving up. We’re all counting on you to walk out of the hospital, and now you’re giving up.” So, my rehab was a difficult time for all of us.
When I came home from the hospital, she was worried about leaving me alone in the house. She was very nervous once I started practicing advanced wheelchair skills like doing wheelies. She was afraid I might fall and get hurt again. She was so devastated by my accident that coming to physical therapy sessions was even tough for her. She told me that watching someone who had been very active trying to roll over by himself was hard.
She wasn’t able to see or understand the gains I was making in my rehab.
I was fairly confident I’d be able to adapt to my new normal, but my wife wasn’t able to see the progress I was making. All she could see was what I had lost. This attitude made this time in our marriage difficult and put a tremendous strain on our marriage.
My father lived close to us, and he was a big help. My mother came from southern California and rented a house near us to help out. I had great family support from my family and my wife’s family. We lived in a two-story townhouse, and the bedrooms and full bath were upstairs.
So, we set-up a bed in the living room and purchased a stackable washer and dryer and a commode chair. Since my dad only lived a few blocks away, I could go to his house to shower. When I found a gym that was accessible, I was able to shower at the gym. After a couple of months, I returned to work and was able to work a few hours each week.
Within 6 months after my injury, I was working full-time, commuting back and forth to work on the public transportation system.
Steve Explores Adaptive Sports
About 6 or 8 months after my injury, I began playing adaptive sports. My mother one day told me, “I’ve found a place where we can go kayaking that’s wheelchair accessible.” I told my mom, “I’ve never ever wanted to go kayaking.”
But then, I remembered what I’d heard from one of my peer support members that after his accident, he learned to say, “Yes,” more. I told her, “Okay, let’s try it.” Over the next 1-1/2 years, I did more adaptive sports, including water skiing, mountain biking, snow skiing, hand cycling and playing wheelchair basketball.
Through different adaptive sports programs, I learned how to handle my body better and how to move about in this new world with my wheelchair.
The first two years after my accident were a huge transformation period for me. After the third year, my wife and I both realized that our relationship had deteriorated. We had struggled even before my accident, and my injury made those problems that we had before my injury much worse. So, I asked my wife for a divorce in 2004. Then several years later, I met Sydney Sauber, who is now my wife. I believe Sydney was the woman I should have been with all my life.
Steve Discovers Swim with Mike: Physically Challenged Athletes’ Scholarship Fund
In an issue of “New Mobility,” a magazine for active wheelchair users Sydney and I were the cover couple for their annual sex and wheels issue. We read an article in that issue of “New Mobility” about the Swim with Mike program, and Sydney asked me, “Why don’t we hang on to this article? I know you’ve always wished you could get a college degree.”
In 2009, we found a bachelor’s degree program in humanities that I was very interested in at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael. In the spring of 2009, I enrolled there and applied for a Swim with Mike scholarship for the 2009 fall and 2010 spring semesters. I continued my Swim with Mike scholarship until my graduation.
The Swim with Mike scholarship was for $10,000 annually and covered about 90 percent of my school expenses.
Because I was working part-time, I went to school on evenings and weekends. I graduated in the spring of 2015 with a BA degree in humanities with a psychology minor.
The History of the Swim with Mike Scholarship Fund
The mission statement of Swim with Mike is to provide financial resources for advanced education that pays the way for physically challenged athletes to overcome their tragedies and realize their full potential. The Swim with Mike Organization is interested in the higher education of students, who have acquired physical disabilities but have an athletic background.
I’d been a high school swimmer, diver and water polo player, competing at the high school state championship level. Also, I had acquired a spinal cord injury. I had all the necessary criteria to receive the Swim with Mike scholarship.
The Swim with Mike Organization was founded because of man named Mike Nyeholt. In 1981, Nyeholt was injured in a motorcycle accident and was paralyzed from the chest down. Mike, a three time All-American swimmer, was on the swim team at University of Southern California (USC). Mike’s teammates organized a Swim for Mike fundraiser to purchase an accessible van for Mike.
The amount of money that the swim team raised exceeded the amount of money required to buy the van. So, they asked Mike what to do with the excess money they’d raised. Mike told them, “Let’s establish a scholarship fund for students at USC that have athletic backgrounds and have acquired disabilities. I’d really like to see the scholarship program and the fundraiser continue.”
The following year the swim team put on another Swim for Mike fundraiser, and Mike was able to join them in the swimming pool. Then the program changed the name from Swim for Mike to Swim with Mike College Scholarship Fund and became a regular a one-day event held only at USC, Mike’s alma mater.
Sponsors paid a certain amount of money for laps swum by members of the USC swim team, or people could just donate money for the Swim with Mike Scholarship Fund. The USC swim team has continued to conduct this event every year since.
Swimmers have raised close to $17 million in the 36-year history of the Swim with Mike program, and it’s far more than just a college scholarship program for people with disabilities.
Some of those first swimmers are on the Swim with Mike board today. They run the events, and they mentor recipients of the scholarships they give. The Swim with Mike Scholarship Fund has grown and supports swimming programs in colleges all over the United States – approximately 187 college scholarships at 90 different schools.
Currently, 57 athletes are receiving this scholarship at 42 universities.
This program grew as the Swim with Mike Scholarship Fund received more applications from potential recipients from other states. Next schools in various sections of the U.S. began conducting Swim with Mike programs to help raise money for scholarships for students in their area.
Also, Swim with Mike scholarship recipients started Swim with Mike programs at the schools they attended. For instance, the University of Connecticut, the University of Hawaii and the University of California Berkley all will hold swims this year.
I want to express my gratitude to the Swim with Mike program, because it helped me get the education that I longed to have.
Steve Completes His Degree Thanks to Swim with Mike
In 2012, during the course of 3 weeks, I had three additional surgeries and spent 36 hours on the operating table, which made me take longer to get my degree. I was out of school for awhile, but the Swim with Mike program continued to stand by me and stayed in close contact with me. The program held my scholarship for me and supported me, until I could return to school.
The staff at Swim with Mike don’t abandon their scholarship recipients after they complete their academic careers. They stay in contact with us and encourage us to stay involved and be resource people for current Swim with Mike scholarship recipients.
They also help to provide work opportunities for their graduates through a program called the Swim with Mike Family. The organization produces a directory every year listing all the recipients, telling what they’re doing and giving their contact information.
Today, I continue to work in the information technology field for the University of California at Berkeley as a systems administrator. I’ve been in that position for about two years. Some of my college professors are now inviting me to come back and speak to their students – about my recovery and my new life but also about how I’ve used what I’ve learned in the humanity courses to help me as a systems administrator.
I often speak to students in physical therapy and occupational therapy classes and students who are entering the rehabilitation field. Not only can I share with them my experiences as a spinal cord injury patient, but also as someone who is using the lessons learned in humanities courses to help connect with newly injured spinal cord patients.
To learn more about the Swim with Mike Scholarship Program, go to www.swimwithmike.org.
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About the Author:
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.