From the Classroom

“Someone’s way up”

How scholarship recipient Myles Molnar gives back to the Swim with Mike Foundation.

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When approached for an interview, Myles Molnar was apprehensive about not having “enough” of a story to write about.

But Molnar, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at USC, sold himself short. Born and raised in what he describes as a “small little suburb” in Pleasanton, California, Molnar beat the notoriously difficult single-player video game “Dark Souls” in middle school, because, in his words, he was a “big old nerd.”

He was an athlete, too. Molnar was always much bigger than his peers. When his parents put him in baseball at a young age, he would hit the ball too hard. Soccer wasn’t the right sport for him either — he hated running because it would trigger his asthma. So he pivoted to wrestling, which he competed in from the fourth grade until halfway through his freshman year of high school.

Molnar moved to Abu Dhabi with his family during the summer before he entered the eighth grade. He spent a year and a half there studying at an American school. There, he continued wrestling, his favorite sport.

Then, on January 21, 2017, he was injured.

Molnar had a cervical spine dislocation involving the C5–C6 level. His spinal cord was impacted, causing quadriplegia, and now he uses a wheelchair. In that sense, his resulting disability is visible. But this story is not about Molnar’s injury. It’s about what happened years later.

Molnar traveled back to the U.S. to begin treatment at a county hospital in Santa Clara, California, before moving to a hospital in Georgia. Then, he went to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado — a leading hospital specializing in neurorehabilitation for individuals with spinal cord injuries. That’s where he learned about the Swim with Mike Foundation.

Swim with Mike was founded in 1981 after Mike Nyeholt, a competitive swimmer at USC and three-time NCAA swimming national champion, was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. His teammate, Ron Orr, gathered the greater USC community for a swimathon event to successfully fundraise $58,000 for an accessible van for Nyeholt. Beginning the following year, Nyeholt joined Orr in hosting an annual fundraiser event on campus to raise scholarship money for other physically challenged athletes.

“People came into our lives for a reason,” said Orr, who now serves as the Executive Director of the foundation. “We kept coming across people who fit our criteria, which was that they were athletic and were in an organized sport and somehow a catastrophic accident or illness came and they were not able to participate in their sport.”

Hearing about Swim with Mike was a game-changer for Molnar. When he first visited USC, Molnar was “gobsmacked” by how flat the campus was — it was “top of the line” and “the most accessible” out of every school he toured. Then, he saw the cost of attendance.

“USC is a very nice school,” said Molnar. “It’s also a very expensive school. And I know that my family could not, can not afford to send me here all alone.”

During his campus visit, Molnar met Nyeholt, Orr and other higher-ups from the foundation.

“I met the ‘people who decide,’ which maybe was, you know, a good group to meet,” said Molnar.

Sure enough, Molnar received a full-tuition scholarship from the foundation, making his dream of attending USC a possibility. Now, he studies applied and computational mathematics and is a member of Trojan Knights, the university’s oldest service organization.

Molnar attends the annual Swim with Mike fundraiser event, which is held at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center (originally the McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium) on campus each spring. He writes thank-you notes to donors. He also speaks at the back-to-school brunch, which mainly hosts current and alumni recipients, their families and some donors.

But for Molnar, that was not enough. He wanted to give back to Swim with Mike in bigger ways. Conveniently, the Trojan Knights organization works in partnership with Swim with Mike to plan the annual fundraiser event. Thus, Molnar was in a unique position to engage with the foundation not just as a recipient but also as a volunteer from Trojan Knights.

“Working with Myles Molnar has been an incredibly positive experience,” said Anna Ellazar, one of the Trojan Knights Swim with Mike chairpersons. “Myles brings a very unique and very valuable perspective as a recipient of the scholarship. Considering the foundation is mostly representing physically challenged athletes, him being a recipient of the award is really important in the planning of the event because the event is in part to celebrate athletes like him.”

Molnar previously held Ellazar’s role, but he now serves in an elected position on the Trojan Knights executive board as the treasurer. Still, together with Ellazar and other Trojan Knights leaders, Molnar volunteered to attend weekly planning committee meetings on Fridays to help make the annual fundraiser event happen.

“We discuss reaching out to other [student organizations] and we try to spread awareness to students on campus,” said Molnar. “Last year it was very successful when it came to donors and recipients, but not so much when it came to students and random people on campus, who we’re trying to market to more this semester. And then obviously there’s the day of [the event], where Trojan Knights help run the entire show.”

Like Molnar, Orr was a Trojan Knight during his time as a student. The student organization’s legacy includes over a century of community service and school spirit initiatives. Multiple Trojan Knights have been recipients of scholarships from the Swim with Mike Foundation, including two members of the U.S. Table Tennis Para National Team.

“I think the Trojan Knights all can see the impact that scholarship had on [Molnar], you know, to be welcomed into USC — and he may not be at USC if it wasn’t for that scholarship,” said Orr. “When you see someone who has gone through what he has gone through, how they face it and how they face the challenges really makes a big difference in your life.”

The Swim with Mike Foundation and Trojan Knights came together for the 42nd annual fundraiser event at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Saturday, April 1. When asked why students should attend the event, Molnar turned to the opportunities higher education presents.

“I think you should look at where you are,” said Molnar. “You’re at USC. This is a great school. It’s giving you a lot of opportunities, freedoms, just so much. And Swim with Mike is doing that same thing but for other people. And they are someone’s way out, someone’s way in, someone’s way up.”

The author of this article is a member of Trojan Knights alongside Myles Molnar.