Former UCLA offensive lineman Nick Ekbatani visits groups to promote the Swim With Mike program that has helped him pursue an MBA at USC.
When you pool your money together, things that once seemed improbable can actually happen.
Nick Ekbatani, who said he never swam before he lost part of his left leg in horrific a 2012 motorcycle accident, now gets to a training pool at 5 a.m. three times a week to work out with a group of master triathletes. They swim more than 2,500 meters in a session that covers about an hour and 15 minutes.
“It’s brutal,” the 27-year-old former UCLA offensive lineman out of South Torrance High and Harbor College says. “But I love it. These kinds of challenges fire me up.”
Quite a few other things Ekbatani never thought he’d be doing are now part of his daily routine. Pursuing a Masters in Business Administration degree at USC might be at the top of the list for someone who majored in political science as a Bruin and had a goal of becoming a lawyer.
But he’s got two semesters left before he figures out what direction that will point him. The scholarships he has received from USC’s Swim With Mike program, which has its 35th annual swim-a-thon fundraiser on Saturday at the on-campus Uytengsu Aquatics Center from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., have more than kept him more than just afloat.
“For someone like me who has lost a leg and almost died, this MBA program has given me stability during the most volatile time in my life and I’m so grateful,” said Ekbatani, living in Westwood these days.
“You have to use your gifts and combine them with your passion. I’ve always idealized going to grad school and this is just a serendipitous thing. Literally, this program has saved my life, that’s how I look at it. I have been in the most miserable, depressed places in my life, but this has given me a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m eternally grateful.”
Ekbatani has had more than a dozen surgeries since that accident in Redondo Beach, but endured the miserable moments to connect with the Swim With Mike program in 2013.
The organization has been more proactive in recent years reaching out to scholar athletes who have life-changing physically challenging situations. The growth of it has expanded well beyond USC in the last dozen years to where more than 160 scholarships totaling $14.2 million have been given out since 1981.
Ekbatani is one of 61 benefactors currently with the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship. Only a quarter of them go to USC; the others are part of a nation-wide program to where swim-a-thon fundraising it taking place through the year at places such as the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Arizona, UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii.
Mike Nyeholt, the three-time USC All-American swimmer in the late ‘70s whose own dirt bike accident left him with a broken neck and little hope to walk again, says stories like Ekbatani continue to push him through his own dark moments.
“He’s an incredible young man and I’m proud to say he’s as big a Trojan now as he was a Bruin before,” said Nyeholt, who, at 58, recently retired as a sales rep at the Capital Group investment company and lives in San Gabriel. “I can’t say enough about all the kids we now have helped. They’re crazy good people.”
Ekbatani says Nyeholt “inspires me so much. He has given me a lot of perspective. I can’t believe how someone in a wheel chair continues to roll on, be so positive. He’s the man.”
Nyeholt’s workout routine includes four trips a week to the Rose Bowl Aquatic Pool to swim with former USC Olympian John Naber.
“It’s absolutely beyond my believe that it has come this far,” said Nyeholt of the program that was initially started by Ron Orr, the current USC associate athletic director and longtime friend of Nyeholt, to help him cover initial medical expenses.
“I rely on this to keep my spirits up. The young men and women we’ve helped remain athletes in their own right. They have drive and perseverance that’s very important, and they want to move forward. As important as the financial assistance is for their academics, it’s important to be surrounded by those who understand their injuries and get caught up in this swim event. I am so proud of them.”
SWIM WITH MIKE:
Event: Saturday at the USC Uytengsu Aquatics Center, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., free parking.
Scholarships: Applicants for the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarships must have suffered an illness or injury that resulted in a physical disability that substantially limits major life activities; have participated in organized high school or college sports prior; met admissions requirements at selected universities and maintain a 2.5 GPA while enrolled.
Benefactors: Among those who are currently receiving scholarships for their education based on the program include:
= Jorge Mendoza of Los Angeles: A right leg amputee who competed in basketball and volleyball, now attending Cal State L.A. in Exercise Science.
= Jennifer Bou Lahoud of San Dimas: T-10, T-11 spinal injury from a sledding accident who competed in basketball and cycling, now at USC in Physiology and Neuroscience.
= Stephen Wilson of Redondo Beach: A paraplegic after an auto accident who competed in soccer and football, now at USC in Mechanical Engineering.
= Sharon Lee of Glendora: A quadriplegic from a fall off a balcony who competed in cross country, now at the University of La Verne in biology and premed.
= David Rodarte of Downey: A paraplegic after an auto accident who competed in football, soccer, basketball and wrestling, now at Long Beach State getting a masters in Counseling in Higher Education.
= Matt Wesley of St. John, Indiana: A quadriplegic from a football injury, now at Notre Dame studying law.
= Andrew Luk of Walnut: Blind and deaf from a brain tumor who competed in swimming, soccer and baseball, now at UCLA as a political science major.