Swimmers pull together after alumnus’ injury

“I think what they will do is swim for him, in a way,” swimming head coach Jerod Simek said. “He was always a big part of the team and still is.”

Despite graduating, former swim captain Derek Mielke is still pulling Truman’s men’s and women’s swimming teams together, albeit a little earlier than usual this school year.

Mielke graduated from Truman in spring 2018 after four years with the men’s swimming team, culminating in a captainship his senior year. This summer, however, his life took a different turn.

Mielke went swimming with some friends in a shallow lake with rocks on the bottom. When he took a dive, he lost consciousness and broke his neck on impact. Since then, Mielke has been paralyzed from the neck down.

Shannon Rempe said she wanted to help. Rempe is an alumna of Truman’s women’s swimming team from the class of 2016. She met Mielke when he joined the Parkway Swim Club his freshman year of high school. They then swam alongside each other throughout their high school and collegiate careers.

Rempe is currently attending Saint Louis University School of Law. She’s pursuing a law degree with a concentration in health law as well as a master’s in public health with a concentration in health management and policy. Rempe said her education shaped how she reacted to Mielke’s accident.

“Within my education so far, I’ve been in a lot of classes that discuss health insurance,” Rempe said. “When I found out [about the accident], almost my immediate thought was, ‘oh my gosh, this is going to be so expensive,’ just because I know how ridiculously expensive healthcare is for people and how you don’t necessarily know how stuff’s going to be covered, especially in Derek’s condition when you know he’s going to be inpatient in a hospital long-term.”

To address that, Rempe organized a GoFundMe campaign. Rempe said she chose to open a GoFundMe because it would let people continually contribute towards Mielke’s medical expenses over the course of his recovery.

So far the GoFundMe has raised nearly $40,000 out of a tentative $50,000 goal, but Rempe said there’s no knowing how much Mielke’s treatment will cost in the end. She said hospitals don’t tend to bill their patients until they leave the hospital’s care, and it’s unclear how much of the bill Mielke’s parents’ health insurance will cover.

“That’s gonna all be used up instantly,” Rempe said about the GoFundMe. “In reality, that [$50,000 goal] needs to be a lot higher, but we’re just kind of taking it as we can.”

Rempe emphasized how close-knit swimming communities are. She said several swimmers have visited Mielke during his recovery, including Simek, and a group of Mielke’s swimming friends pooled money together to get Mielke a St. Louis Blues jersey.

Senior Emma Barnett, one of this year’s swimming captains, said some of Mielke’s friends are also selling wristbands and T-shirts to raise money for his recovery. These items are branded #MielkeStrong, a hashtag similar to #BulldogStrong, which the swimming teams use during times of struggle.

Barnett said despite the teams’ devastation, they’re doing everything they can to spread the word about Mielke and keep a positive attitude. She said she thinks the Truman swimming teams will take this optimistic outlook and motivation into the swimming pool come September.

“It’ll be one of those ‘let’s do this for Derek’ kind of things,” Barnett said. “I think it’ll lift us up more than [it’s] bringing us down because we kind of have someone to fight for.”

Simek sees this experience pushing the team forward. He said he hopes this inspires the team to perform at a higher level.

“I think it’s brought our team even closer with all of this, and so having them know that they’ve always got each other’s backs, no matter what the situation is, I think that’s going to add an extra element into hopefully our team’s success this upcoming year,” Simek said.

Currently, Mielke is undergoing physical therapy in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, where they specialize in treating people with spinal cord injuries. He’s specifically working in the Harris Family Foundation Arms + Hands Lab.

Mielke had been planning to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry in the fall. Rempe said the UMKC School of Dentistry has postponed Mielke’s admission for one year to give him time to recover his mobility.

“If he gets full mobility back in his hands and arms, then he could still pursue [dental school],” Rempe said. “It just depends what type of mobility he gets back, if that’s still possible.”