Paraplegic Richland swimmer dives into Alcatraz Sharkfest

By Pratik Joshi, Herald staff writerJune 5, 2010 

RICHLAND -- Nate Higgins doesn't let his disability get the better of him.

As a paraplegic swimmer, he tests his endurance, stamina and the will to succeed in the face of adversity. And that helps Higgins define himself as an athlete who loves to compete and win.

"I'm all about challenge, about the next conquest," said the Richland man who lost the use of his legs and abdominal and lower back muscles after falling off a roof in 2004.

And Higgins has taken on plenty of challenges by using just the muscles in his arms, chest and shoulders to swim.

He's done the mile-plus Columbia Crossing swim, the 1.76-mile Long Bridge swim across Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho, and now he's ready for Alcatraz Sharkfest, a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco to be held Sunday.

Frigid water and challenging currents make the swim treacherous, said Higgins, who turns 25 on June 13. "If you don't swim fast enough, you end up at the Golden Gate bridge."

The old prison at Alcatraz was built there because it was so difficult to swim away from the place, he said.

About 800 swimmers are expected to participate in Sunday's swim, Higgins said. "I always wanted to do this," he said.

Higgins said he's excited that his effort also will help him raise scholarship money for disabled athletes. He has raised more than $1,200 so far and people still can donate. Since he exceeded his goal of $1,000, his swim will be filmed and broadcast online.

To learn more about how you can help Higgins, go to

Swimming is about hope, an opportunity to compete and to have an active lifestyle, said Higgins, who graduated from Gonzaga University last year with a bachelor's in economics, finance and human resources and a minor in philosophy.

Higgins, who works as a labor relations specialist for CH2M Hill, doesn't moan about the tragic event that changed his life, preferring to look ahead with a positive attitude.

"You only live once. You play the hand you're dealt. You play with pride," he said.

Higgins likes to be active, and spends 10 to 15 hours a week playing wheelchair basketball, handcycling and swimming.

Higgins' swimming coach, Jennifer Tonkyn, said he may be in a wheelchair but his spirit to succeed soars high and he's determined to show what a disabled athlete can do.

"Tell him 'You can't do it,' and his determination to do it increases," Tonkyn said.

She said she initially was nervous about taking Higgins as a student, but he has worked hard to adapt and improve as a swimmer. "He's been a fantastic student and I love teaching him."

Tonkyn said she thinks Higgins has trained well for the swim in San Francisco, but it won't be easy. The tide can pull even an able-bodied swimmer off course into the sea, she said. But she said it's not important whether Higgins makes it or not, "He's trying to show you what he's made of."

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