Swim With Mike: Dillon Connolly as a USC swimmer

(Photo/Long Photography)

Social Impact

Trojan perseverance: How Dillon Connolly continues to defy the odds and create a brighter path for others

After an accident paralyzed him from the chest down, this former USC swimmer opted to give back to others like himself.

April 05, 2024 By Grayson Schmidt

When Dillon Connolly woke up in a hospital bed on Sept. 14, 2014, he knew his life would never be the same.

The day before, former USC swimmer had suffered a spinal cord injury after diving into what he thought was open water. Instead, Connolly hit a sandbar and shattered his C5 and C6 vertebrae, which severed his spinal cord at C5. Once an avid swimmer, wakeboarder, surfer, hiker and all-around outdoorsman, he now was paralyzed from the chest down.

Swim with Mike sidebar“Losing your independence is the worst part — you pretty much lose your old self,” Connolly said.

While his past levels of physical activity were out of reach, his motivation and determination remained intact. In 2019, five years after his injury, Connolly returned to his alma mater to begin a master’s program in entrepreneurship and innovation at the USC Marshall School of Business. That same year he launched Zuk Fitness, an online workout platform for wheelchair users.

Those opportunities were made possible through the Swim with Mike Foundation, an organization that raises scholarship money for disabled athletes. This weekend, the foundation will host its 43rd annual Swim with Mike event, featuring multiple swimming workouts and races, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair pickleball tournaments, and a diving show, all held at USC’s University Park Campus.

This will be the 14th year that Connolly has participated in the festivities. He started volunteering during his time at USC, though the former Trojan said the event has come to mean a lot more to him since his injury.

“I can honestly say that — prior to my injury — I really had no idea about the actual impact that Swim with Mike had,” Connolly said. “I already knew it was a really great foundation, but having that firsthand experience changed everything — I never imagined I could have gone back to USC, so I felt so fortunate for the silver lining.”

Swim with Mike: The first swim and a four-decade legacy

Surprisingly, the event that led to the first Swim with Mike event started outside of a pool. On Jan. 2, 1981, a dirt biking accident paralyzed Mike Nyeholt, a USC All-American and three-time NCAA champion. Friends and teammates organized a fundraiser to raise money to purchase a specialized van so Mike could continue his education at USC. The event — named “Swim For Mike” at the time — was a swim-a-thon that featured USC swimmers, volunteers and donors doing laps around the pool on campus. Organizers eventually raised $58,000.

From there, Nyeholt decided to pay it forward and keep the event going for other disabled athletes.

Since that first fundraiser, the event has featured Olympians, celebrities and even former President Ronald Reagan. Over more than 40 years of events, Swim with Mike has raised more than $25 million and awarded over 250 scholarships to recipients at more than 130 universities across the country.

“I’ve gotten to know the people at Swim with Mike really well since my injury, and it’s just a lot of really good people making a really big difference in people’s lives,” Connolly said.

Connolly’s comeback

Since his childhood in Marietta, Ga., Connolly has spent most of his time outdoors, mostly near water. Swimming was one of his first loves, and when it came time to pick a school that would enable him to continue that love, USC seemed to be the perfect fit.

“The swimming, the weather, the food — it all just felt like home for some reason,” he said.

Swim With Mike: Dillon Connolly today
Dillon Connolly credits the team at Swim with Mike with motivating him to return to school for his master’s degree. (Photo/Courtesy of Swim with Mike)

At USC, Connolly earned All-American honors and captained a men’s swim team that was consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally. He was the USC record holder for both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke and was an Olympic trials qualifier in those events.

“The guy just had so much energy and was an extremely talented swimmer,” said Tanner Trowbridge, a friend and former teammate of Connolly’s on the USC swim team. “Dillon was very much a competitor and he hated losing just like a lot of us did, but he certainly had the talent to go a long way with it.”

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in industrial and systems engineering from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Connolly worked in the profession for several years before his accident.

The resulting paralysis — with only limited use of his right bicep and right shoulder — had a profound impact on his professional career.

“Working full time, at least in a strict 8-to-5 role, just isn’t quite an option when it takes three hours to get up in the morning every day,” he said.

Connolly credits the team at Swim with Mike with motivating him to return to school for his master’s degree.

“It took me five years until I was even able to think about going back to school, and even then, I forced myself to do that because I was still figuring out how to get by every day,” he said. “They basically just asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and said that could be accomplished through education,” Connolly said. “They told me Swim with Mike would be there for me when I was ready, and they meant it.”

School, business ventures and the determination to move forward

Connolly didn’t originally plan to found Zuk Fitness during his first semester of graduate school. But after finding online and in-person communities for other quadriplegic people, he said he began seeing the disparities in access to exercise opportunities for this population across the country.

“I wanted to do something to help the quadriplegic community, and I didn’t know what it was when I started school,” he said. “It evolved because I could clearly see that there was a real need, and there just weren’t a lot of fitness options online.”

Connolly said he’s fortunate that he still lives in the Los Angeles area, where there are several adaptive gyms for wheelchair user, including one 30 minutes from his house. For many wheelchair users, the closest gym could be several hours, or even a full day’s drive away.

“That’s why there had to be an online option,” he said.

Zuk Fitness provides a platform for wheelchair users to access a library of different pre-recorded workouts tailored to their needs, taught by other mobility-impaired instructors. Current plan options cost less than $10 a month. Connolly said the plan is to turn the business into a nonprofit and offer those services free of charge, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows him.

“At his deepest core, he’s a good person,” Trowbridge said. “That’s the truth of it — he does care about others, and he does want to make the world a better place through his gifts and his talents.”

In a way, Connolly has done what Mike Nyeholt did over 40 years ago. Swim with Mike — or Swim For Mike in Nyeholt’s case — provided Connolly with the tools to better himself through education, and now he’s paying it forward.

“I had a really good 25 years [as a person without disabilities] so I’m grateful for that, but a lot of people aren’t even that lucky — some people aren’t even in high school yet when they get injured,” Connolly said. “These things happen that just totally change your plans abruptly, but then life gives you a new direction and hope. I’m really thankful that organizations like Swim with Mike exist.”