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Patrick Finley: Joe Kay gets in the swim for scholarship charity

2013-04-25T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:32:02Z Patrick Finley: Joe Kay gets in the swim for scholarship charityPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Joe Kay left Stanford with a degree in American Studies, and wanted to see the country for himself.

So shortly after graduating in 2009, he bought a van with bed, sink and mini-fridge in the back.

Over the next year and a half, the former Tucson High volleyball and basketball star made two laps around the United States.

By the time he was done, he could claim to have visited all 50 states in his lifetime. He's slept in all but one - Georgia.

He visited 30 state capitols.

He drove took the Pan-American Highway as far north as it would go, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean.

His van - with Kay and his brother, niece and brother's dog inside - blew a tire on the drive back from the bay.

Kay stayed in the van for a day and a half with the dog, while his brother hitchhiked to Coldfoot (population: 14!) and had a tire flown up from Fairbanks.

Which is to say, Kay's done a ton of living since his carotid artery was torn nine years when he was tackled by basketball fans storming the floor after the Badgers beat Salpointe.

The accident paralyzed the right half of his body. Kay, 27, now walks with few problems, and lists a "slow" right hand is his main complication.

He has come back to Tucson, where he's working on a master's in social work from Arizona State. (Don't worry, he jokes: He attends classes here, so he doesn't have to spend time on the Sun Devils' campus.)

Saturday, he'll try to give back a little. From noon to 4 p.m., Kay and others will host "Float With Mike," an inner-tube water polo tournament at the UA Student Recreation Center.

Admission is free for those who want to watch or, for $5 apiece, participate.

The inaugural event is a spinoff of "Swim With Mike," one of the world's most unusual scholarships.

The 33-year-old charity, based out of USC but spread to students at 68 schools, has raised more than $13.2 million for 141 physically challenged athletes.

Recipients must have played sports before suffering a life-changing injury or illness. SWM pays about $10,000 annually, be it for undergrad or higher-level college degrees, provided a student keeps at least a 2.5 GPA.

Kay was one of the first scholarship recipients not to attend USC. (He joked he was the only one to refuse to make Trojans' "V for victory" hand signal in photos).

He had a half-scholarship that Stanford's volleyball team honored despite the injury, but SWM paid for another a quarter of his tuition.

SWM has given more than $240,000 in scholarships to eight UA students, including four current ones.

Drew Donnellan, the former Salpointe gymnast and one of my favorite people ever, used SWM money to help pay for the UA. He graduated a year ago.

Without the money, quad rugby player Eric Baker - a 21-year-old UA junior who, in high school, dove head-first into the bottom of a pool before a water polo game - would have probably attended San Jose State and not played sports.

"Just going to school," Baker said, unenthusiastically. His college experience - socially, athletically and academically - would not have been the same.

Same for Matt Farmen, 24, who will receive his master's from the UA in two weeks.

The Eugene, Ore., resident was injured 12 years ago when his sled hit a tree.

Farmen played high school tennis, a wheelchair athlete against those without one, before coming to the UA. He received two years of SWM money.

"The University of Arizona has the biggest adaptive-athletic department in the country," said Farmen, a UA wheelchair tennis player. "It's important that we give back, keep it going and get more people here."

So many UA students have taken SWM money, it makes sense to start a satellite charity here.

It's the perfect place: Athletes who channel their post-injury competitiveness into wheelchair sports want to play at the UA.

That's not the case at most schools; Kay can remember seeing only one Stanford student in a wheelchair.

Kay, who founded a mini-SWM at Stanford, hopes to raise $5,000 in the UA's first try at the fundraiser.

You can show up Saturday, or go to www.swimwithmike.org

"I feel like I have to give something back," he said. "To organize an event that will hopefully continue next year, and the year after, is the least I can do."

Contact reporter Patrick Finley at pfinley@azstarnet.com or 573-4658. On Twitter @PatrickFinley.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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