Swimming for his life

Disabled swimmer Matt Bailey raises awareness and funds for disabled children.

Disabled swimmer Matt Bailey raises awareness and funds for disabled children.

Last September, 49-year-old paraplegic Matt Bailey conquered what he calls his “Mount Everest.” He swam across Lake Tahoe in order to raise awareness and money to purchase running legs for disabled kids. For his 50th birthday, the extreme athlete has his eyes set on another Mount Everest, but this time he’ll be climbing that metaphorical mountain along with killer whales and sharks from the pier at Long Beach, Calif., to Catalina Island. The self-described “baddest man on the planet” says he’ll either make the beach or be “pulled out of the water dead.” That’s just the kind of guy Matt Bailey is.

“1, 2, 3, breathe.”

That was Bailey’s mantra during his 12- mile swim across Lake Tahoe last September. It’s all the Moana Pool swim instructor could think about. With nearly 1,200 feet below him and the brisk morning air having chilled the calm surface of the lake, Bailey knew what he had to do. He put one arm in front of the other and let his mind clear, ignoring his aching muscles and tightening lungs, seeing only the other shore—his destination. He was doing what most others would not even dream of doing. And he was doing it without the use of his legs.

Diagnosed with tumors in his spinal chord and treated with chemotherapy six years ago, Bailey has seen and experienced a lot of life, wheelchair and all. At 49, he is one of the oldest disabled athletes. He’s competed in more than 42 competitions, including marathons, Iron Man triathlons and his most recent fundraising swim across Lake Tahoe. Sitting in his living room, which is adorned with inspirational quotes from Emerson, Thoreau and the late-’90s band Offspring, he explains why he does it.

“Because I can,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

It’s hard to argue with a man wearing a T-shirt that says, “Got morgue? Quit bitching!” and pink fingernails in honor of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer society.

Help is here

As a spokesperson for the Challenge Athletes Foundation, which supports disabled athletes of all ages, Bailey recently started a donation fund to help purchase prosthetic limbs for children who can’t afford them. With shoulder- length wavy hair, which he proudly calls his lion’s mane, Bailey promises that this swim was the first of many fundraising events to come.

The swim, which took place on Sept. 11, began at Tahoe City, around Lake Forest Point, and finally across to Nevada State Beach, making for a six- hour ordeal. The water temperature averaged 65 degrees—frigid conditions for any experienced swimmer to endure, and yet, Bailey says he wasn’t once discouraged.

“I wanted to change the life of a little boy or girl,” he explains. “If I ever got tired, all I had to do was look at my arm coming out of the water and thought about a child somewhere who didn’t have an arm. That was enough to keep me going.”

Bailey is, above all, determined, perhaps even a bit pig-headed at times. Nick Estes, a long-time friend and local casino employee, recalls making bets with Bailey when they’ve gone skiing together as to who could make it to the bottom of the mountain faster. While Bailey was fixed to specially designed skis for his disability, the runs were always the most difficult ones, often black diamonds. But Bailey never backed down, always agreeing with an enthusiastic, “Fuck yeah, I’m ready!”

Just doing it

Boisterous and an avid fan of four- letter words, Bailey inspires many of his close friends with his sheer perseverance and heart.

Matt Bailey swims across Lake Tahoe in 2007.

“Once you tell Matt he can’t do something, he’ll go out and do it … and then some,” Estes says. “He’s just a stubborn guy like that.”

A swim instructor for three years, Bailey has been a natural athlete from a young age and sees himself as no different from anyone else. Often training for hours every day, either swimming or hand cycling around the streets of Reno, Bailey battles constant pain for which he takes countless amounts of pills.

“Too many people have forgotten the love of doing something,” Bailey says. “That’s what I try to remember to do every day. People may think I’m loud and enjoy attention, but I’m really just confident because I know what I’m capable of. And it’s not for the sake of some title. I just love what I do.”

Bailey, however, wasn’t always so confident. Shortly after beginning his chemotherapy treatments back in 2003, he tried to commit suicide, marking what he considers the lowest point of his life. Sitting with a gun in his mouth as Sportscenter was playing in the background, Bailey contemplated how much he truly wanted to go on living. His finger was poised on the trigger.

“That’s when I think my mom spoke to me,” Bailey says as tears well in his eyes. “She had passed away several years earlier due to cancer, and I think she was trying to tell me she wasn’t ready for me yet. It wasn’t my time to go.”

Ever since then, Bailey has been raising awareness for the disabled community in Reno, competing in as many local competitions as possible and hoping to help others realize that it isn’t their time to go, either. But as a Reno resident for more than seven years, he admits he’s found little support, particularly no steady sponsor for his events.

“I feel as if the community has failed itself,” Bailey says, with a hint of bitterness in his voice. “It’s as if people don’t want to acknowledge the man in the wheelchair.”

Susan Trusdale, owner of the Purple Bean Coffeehouse, has known Bailey for several years and is well acquainted with his anger.

“He wears his emotions on his sleeves,” Trusdale says. “His intensity and passion can be overwhelming, and sometimes people don’t know how to accept it. It must be a frustrating position because people just don’t understand what he’s trying to do.”

His September swim was more than just one arm in front of the other. Something changed him out on the water that day.

“Somewhere halfway through that lake, I found myself floating, and I was overwhelmed,” Bailey says. “Not with exhaustion or fatigue, but spiritually. It felt like I had been touched by God. I realize now that this is my second chance at life, and what I’m trying to do is to make the most of it.”

Not a devout follower of formal religion, Bailey has had problems in the recent past dealing with his relationship with God. He admits that it’s hard not to feel bitter toward his unfortunate handicap. Yet, it’s because of his situation and these events that he’s found new meaning in life.

“I hate this disability, but at the same time, it has changed my life,” Bailey says. “You want to know what I’m trying to do? I’m trying to change the way people think and live their lives. Too many people think about tomorrow, and not enough people live for the moment. I want to show people they can live in that moment.”

Getting ready for his afternoon swim, Bailey excuses himself from the room. On the walls hang photos of him and small children in wheelchairs with wide grins and marathon tag numbers from previous races. This man has cheated death once before. Judging from the faces and numbers on the wall, it looks like he’s ahead.

“This is just my responsibility,” he says from the other room. “That simple.”

Simple? Twelve-mile swims don’t seem simple. Marathons and triathlons, hardly. But maybe when it comes down to it, you really have to focus on doing just one thing: “1, 2, 3, breathe.”