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Replenishing a Reflecting Pool

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’ll tell you that he’s lucky.

Richard Vietor, 37, was paralyzed from the chest down after a diving accident at Kings River near Fresno on July 4, 2000. He has slowly regained movement in his lower body since the accident and can walk short distances with a cane.Vietor has pledged to swim 10 laps today at the annual “Swim With Mike,” an event benefiting former athletes such as Vietor by providing scholarship money to those left physically disabled by accident or illness.

“There’s no other program anywhere that offers this kind of hope for kids who are in almost a hopeless situation,” Vietor said. “The ‘Swim With Mike’ program gives them hope, and it really gives them the world.”

“Swim With Mike” was organized in 1981 by Ron Orr, now USC’s associate athletic director and a USC student at the time. It was scheduled as a one-time fund-raiser to purchase a specially equipped van for Mike Nyeholt, a Trojan All-American swimmer paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.

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It raised more than $58,000, more than enough to pay for the van. Nyeholt suggested the excess money be used to help others in similar situations. Twenty-one years and $3.2 million later, “Swim With Mike,” a volunteer-run program, continues to grow. The event starts at 8 a.m. at the USC-McDonald’s Swim Stadium.There will be other activities, including a barbecue, instruction from Olympic swimmers and a relay race between USC football players and song girls.

Undergraduate and graduate students who participated in high school or college athletics before suffering a physical disability are eligible to apply to the Physically Challenged Athletes Fund.

The fund covers everything from tuition and room and board to on-campus transportation to emotional support services. Starting this year, scholarship money can be used at a university other than USC.

For many recipients, the scholarship allows them to take steps toward creating lives for themselves.

Ashley Olson, who was in a car accident after her freshman year in high school that left her paraplegic, said she could not have attended USC without the financial assistance.

“It’s been an enormous gift for me to come here,” said Olson, a communications major. “USC is a great school. It’s a flat campus, and it’s in L.A. where there are so many opportunities for me.”

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Vietor didn’t realize he also qualified for the scholarship when he participated in his first “Swim With Mike” event last April. A former gym rat, Vietor was simply excited about a chance to participate in the swim-a-thon.

He pledged to swim 40 lengths by using his upper body to pull his lower body. After completing the first lap, he felt great. But he quickly fatigued, completing four lengths. Still, he raised $600.

After Vietor, who lettered in football, volleyball and basketball at Redondo High, finished swimming, Orr told him that he might qualify for the scholarship. The fund has been helping Vietor pay for school since he returned last summer to complete the MBA program.

Vietor, a longtime aerospace employee at Northrop Grumman, has vowed to attend every “Swim With Mike” event for the rest of his life.

“It really gives me inspiration,” Vietor said. “In the long run, I’ll make a lot more money for the program than they’ll ever give me.”

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