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Former UK diving coach Mike Lyden's legacy alive and well

Mike Lyden, who was Kentucky's diving coach at one time, was on hand to see daughter Jessica win her second state title on the 1-meter springboard. He died of cancer two months later.
Mike Lyden, who was Kentucky's diving coach at one time, was on hand to see daughter Jessica win her second state title on the 1-meter springboard. He died of cancer two months later.

Five years after lung cancer took Mike Lyden's life, his ripples can still be felt.

The family of the University of Kentucky diving coach keeps the battle against cancer, and his memory, vibrant.

Wife Emily, daughters Jessica and Brittany, and son Jack carry on Mike's legacy.

"It's all driven from that," Jack said.

Jessica, 23, is focused on lung-cancer research, serving as an assistant to Dr. Timothy Mullett at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center since last August.

Brittany, 15, has orchestrated a "survivor bracelet" program to raise funds for UK's Mike Lyden Patient Support Fund.

Jack, 21, is the official cheerleader for his sisters, and Emily is the de facto benefactor of the bracelet project.

Mike, a non-smoker, was 51 when he died in April 2008. He was known as "Iron Mike" to friends.

At first, that was because he would compete against and often beat his own athletes.

In the end, it was because of how he refused to surrender to cancer.

Two months before he died and while very weak, he was there to see Jessica, then a senior at Lexington Catholic, win the State Meet 1-meter diving competition with a record 498.10 points.

Jessica went on to compete for Duke where, last year, she graduated with a psychology major and biology minor.

She's taking a few weeks off now before returning to Duke for med school.

She took this year off, opting to assist Mullett, a cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in surgical treatment of lung and esophageal cancers.

"She is the utility infielder," Mullett said. "She has the ability to — and we've actually pressed her into service because she was part-time with the KCTN (Kentucky Clinical Trials Network) job, so she had extra time on her hands — and we had extra jobs with other data-base work that's going on, so she's been very helpful in that area as well. We've been able to use her in a lot of different ways."

Jessica's primary responsibilities involved lung-cancer screening and establishing a database for being able to evaluate patients with lung nodules and early evaluation.

Mullett is a long-time family friend. Mike, who was at UK from 1993 until 2008, also coached Mullett's daughters Kristyn and Casey in club programs.

Jessica had an interest in medicine from an early age and has, essentially, been coached by Mullett.

"I shadowed him before and just been in contact with him, and he's been a mentor for me since I'm going into medicine," Jessica said. "So he offered me the position. ... Of course, I have a personal interest in it, too, which has been good to be able to work towards that."

Bracelets were not part of the job description.

That elegantly simple idea (Mullett's description) came from Brittany.

Attending a lung-cancer run/walk last fall, Brittany was dismayed by a small turnout.

So she talked with Jessica about what they could do to help raise awareness, and a bracelet idea was hatched. Kentucky leads the nation in both new incidences of lung cancer and deaths from the disease.

Helped by friends, Brittany started making bracelets early this year.

"We originally just made blue-and-white (bracelets) because the white ribbon is for cancer and blue is Kentucky blue, and we thought that would be popular," Brittany said.

Soon, though, colors expanded. Pink bracelets for breast-cancer awareness; green for kidney cancer; white for lung cancer. And so on.

(Each bracelet has 8 or more feet of paracord — the same material Mullett, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, had in a bracelet when he was deployed to Afghanistan for 90 days last year. The bracelets can be unraveled for multiple uses in survival situations.)

Jessica had contacts at Markey, who set up a fund in her father's name.

The plan was to donate proceeds to cancer research. But research usually involves thousands, even millions, of dollars.

Thus came the Mike Lyden Patient Support Fund.

One-hundred percent of bracelet proceeds ($7 each) go to the fund "so that they could give immediate help to a patient," Emily said.

For example, a patient driving several hours to UK for chemotherapy might be helped with a gas card, meal voucher or overnight lodging.

"It's giving back to the community," Emily said, "since we were given so much."

It's also about a family fighting the good fight, just as Iron Mike did.

His death "would have redirected many people to go in the opposite direction," Mullett said of Jessica. "I think that if you think about the concept of first-responder, the concept of the military action, it's not always the right thing to do to go in the opposite direction of where the problem is.

"She's tackled this with the idea that she's going to take this head on, and I think that's just a testament to her strength and probably just another example of how she's used her fortitude. ... Jessica's a pretty strong person, so she used that experience and turned that into a passion which is actually driving what she's doing today."

■ For more information or to order bracelets, email MCCbracelets@gmail.com. Checks can be written to the Markey Cancer Foundation, and donations can be made online through the Markey Cancer Foundation website.

Bracelet colors are white (lung cancer), dark blue (colon), light blue (prostate), teal (ovarian/cervical), green (kidney), lime green (lymphoma), yellow (liver), pink (breast), orange (leukemia), gold (childhood), gray (brain), black (melanoma/skin), purple (pancreatic) and lavender (general cancer awareness).