By Peter Tormey
TRI CITIES, Wash. – Nate Higgins is at it again. On June 6, the Gonzaga alumnus will try to swim the 1.5-miles from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, considered one of the most extreme open-water tests in the world. The frigid water and fierce current alone have stopped many. Imagine swimming Alcatraz as Higgins will: without using your legs.
Higgins aims to be among the first, if not the first, paraplegic athlete to swim Alcatraz. What?! Higgins will up the ante by swimming without a wetsuit and will use only the breast stroke. His attempt will be streamed live via the YourSports Network and can be viewed online [www.yoursports.com/natehiggins/].
For Nate Higgins, it’s but one more challenge to stare in the eye and defeat.
One year ago this month, he rolled across the stage in culmination of his self-imposed academic challenge by earning from Gonzaga a triple concentration in economics, finance and human resources with a minor in philosophy. Upon graduating, Higgins dreamed of working in labor relations. He’s now a labor relations specialist for CH2M Hill.
While Higgins believes he will be the first paraplegic to swim Alcatraz with or without a wetsuit, he can’t be certain. But that is not what matters. Higgins will fight the turbulent, 60-degree water because he has always wanted to, and because doing so will help raise scholarships for disabled athletes through the Swim with Mike Foundation.
You see, Higgins knows firsthand the power of education, which he calls “the great equalizer.” Now that he has raised the $500 necessary to broadcast the swim online, every cent contributed to his effort will help other disabled athletes.
“The important thing is this will be a great experience and I will be able to help raise money for disabled athletic scholarships,” Higgins said, adding he was inspired at Gonzaga to be a person for others.
“A big part of Gonzaga is reaching out and helping others. So many people reached out and helped me,” Higgins said. “People really, really cared about my well-being and health as a person. Even when I didn’t get the best grades they didn’t look down on me. They still were so nice to me and took time to talk to me. I’ll never forget that.”
A tragic painting accident in the summer of his senior year in high school left him paraplegic. Since then, Higgins has consistently done what others said he could not. The intensely competitive former captain of wrestling and cross-country teams deferred admission to Gonzaga for a year to learn to live on his own again.
“I had one doctor tell me I’d never learn to swim without water wings,” he said. “Swimming is what has really, in many ways, saved my life.”
No one loves a challenge like Higgins. Two summers ago, he swam across the Columbia River and back without a wetsuit. His warm-up for that swim was a nearly 2-mile swim across Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille – also sans wetsuit.
What’s next? Swim the English Channel and win gold in the 2012 Paralympic Games are in his sights.
To the many who’ve asked, “Why try something so dangerous?” Nate’s answer is always the same.
“While this is indeed a dangerous swim, it’s a beautiful opportunity to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries and the healing power of sport,” Higgins said. “I think Helen Keller said it best: ‘Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.’ ”
Nate Higgins would know.