CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte swimmer Nick Andrade returned to a place he should feel most at home Saturday – a competition swimming pool.
But even he admitted he had mixed feelings about visiting the first Charlotte UltraSwim meet since a diving accident paralyzed him from the neck down.
“It's hard,” he said – mouthing the words his younger brother Victor repeated for him – “because I'm not used to being like this. I'm used to preparing for races.”
Andrade was a standout swimmer at Charlotte Catholic High School, and graduated last spring. In September, he injured his spinal cord diving into a shallow river near his family’s home in Brazil.
The air ambulance to bring Andrade back to Charlotte cost roughly $70,000, and friends, neighbors, and his SwimMAC teammates rallied to raise the money.
Pizza nights, wristbands, ribbons, car magnets – teammates even paid to “Swim Nick home from Brazil” during one fundraiser that involved swimming across each lane of the 22-lane SwimMAC training pool.
They haven’t stopped, either. Some of Andrade’s neighbors stood at a table outside the aquatic center Saturday with car magnets and wristbands for a $5 donation.
“There's 10-15 kids that are part of SwimMAC because of Nick, so he's made a difference,” said neighbor Scott Utesch. Andrade coached Utesch’s son, Nate, on their neighborhood swim team for two summers.
Because of Andrade, said Utesch, Nate decided to pursue swimming more seriously at SwimMAC.
“People are obsessed with the famous swimmers,” said Utesch, “but sometimes it's the guys like Nick that, quietly in a little neighborhood swim team, caring and encouraging the younger generation -- they're having a huge influence too.”
Meet Director Jeff Gaeckle showed the Andrade family around the meet, including the National Team tent. Swimmers, including Olympians Ryan Lochte, Cullen Jones, and Ricky Berens – who grew up on SwimMAC – greeted Andrade and encouraged him.
“He's got a tough road ahead of him,” Gaeckle told the National Team members, “but like you all, he's a fighter.”
Andrade’s father, Robson, is from Brazil and said he expected his son to become a soccer player. He became a swimmer instead, and that has become a blessing since the accident.
“We had a swimmer right among us,” said the elder Andrade, choking up slightly, “and the family they built around our family is amazing. It’s amazing.”
Nick, through halting words, said the discipline he learned through swimming is what helps him get through each day now.
“It's probably the only way I got through this part of my life,” he said. He admits, he wants to get back in the water again someday. His family says he will need to breathe on his own, without the help of the ventilator he now uses.
He seems determined.
“I have to keep moving forward,” he whispers. “And that's what swimming taught me.”
“Team Nick” is still raising money to help with Nick Andrade’s rehabilitation. Friends have set up a website at www.HelpNickAndrade.com to take donations.