Kansas University graduate and former swim team member Tyghe Nielsen jumped in the Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center pool Saturday ready to compete and with a specific opponent in mind: cancer.
Tyghe was swimming in the Drown Out Cancer Swim-A-Thon, a community event he organized to raise money for the KU Cancer Center and the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation. The cause is important to Tyghe; in February 2010 he was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer with metastasis to his liver, a cancer with only an 8 percent chance to be alive five years after a diagnosis. After undergoing multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, the side effects of treatment had him back in the pool for exercise rather than running or biking. He was working out in the water when he came up with the idea to begin Drown Out Cancer.
“According to the statistics, I probably shouldn’t be alive. I think there’s a reason I’m still here and I think this is kind of my calling,” Tyghe said.
Part of Tyghe's inspiration came from a friend, Linda Leiss, who died in January. Leiss had been diagnosed with the same disease two years prior to Tyghe, and the two shared a treatment path and doctors. Karin, Tyghe’s wife, said the death of Leiss was shocking to her friends and it left Tyghe wondering what he could do to fight the disease.
Tyghe got a group of 12 board members together, and they formed Drown Out Cancer.
“To see him with his diagnosis spearhead this thing ... It’s been great to watch him take the hardship he’s had and turn it into something positive,” Tyghe’s brother Oliver Nielsen said.
They organized the entire event in less than three months with a goal to raise $100,000 through donations and pledges. As of Saturday night, they have raised $65,000.
Some of the swimmers had donors pledge money based on how far they swam while others just asked for a flat donation.
“Cancer affects everybody — every race, every color. There’s motivation for everybody in this pool to make a difference,” Tyghe said.
After the swim-a-thon there was a Second Wind Event and Auction with live music by local country artist Travis Marvin, 40 silent auction items and a live auction of items such as Taylor Swift concert tickets and a trip to Costa Rica. Everything for the event was organized and done by volunteers, and the costs were paid out of pocket. All of the proceeds from the swim-a-thon and Second Wind will go toward the two charities.
Drown Out Cancer’s mission is to raise awareness and funds for cancer, and the organization hopes the swim-a-thon becomes an event that swim teams in the state and across the nation host and take part in.
Karin said that despite the hardships her husband and family have faced in Tyghe’s battle with cancer, the support from the community for their cause gives them one more thing to help keep their positive attitudes.
“(Tyghe’s diagnosis) was definitely life-altering, but it’s all relative. Everyone has things in life to deal with, and it just depends on how you move forward,” Karin said.