Nikki has a way of expressing emotion without reservation. And a contagious love of life. In this respect, his handicap is secondary. His condition, which was caused by brain damage from a lack of oxygen in the womb, has affected his mental development and the muscle coordination of his arms and legs, but Nikki is able to speak and read … and is a whizz on his iPad.
His father, Kevin, who is now 51 and devilishly fit, quit his job when Nicholas was just 3 years old. He wanted to have more time for his son. And it wasn’t long before the two of them were inseparable. But something was still missing. “I always thought how nice it would be to do sports with Nikki,” said Kevin. “But the question was how?”
His pastor’s wife sent him a video about an American father and son who compete in triathlons. “That was a revelation! I asked Nikki if he wanted to do something like that with me, and he said, ‘You bet I do!’” That’s when father and son became “Team Garwood”.
Kevin began training. Initially with little success. Then Nikki started riding along in a large jogger that converted into a bike trailer. This allowed them to train together – and the motivation that Nikki contributed was enormous. The bike trailer wasn’t an ideal solution, but the team didn’t give up. They competed in short-distance duathlons (running and cycling) and triathlons (running, swimming, and cycling).
“It wasn’t until we found the PINO that we became a real team on the bike,” beamed Kevin. “The tandem works perfectly for us: it’s built to support Nikki’s legs in the front, and we both have a panoramic view and can easily speak to each other. I can even feed him when he gets hungry.”
Then came their first Ironman South Africa in 2012 – unfortunately with weather problems in the form of strong winds – and they weren’t allowed to do the cycling leg. That did not deter them, however. They did Ironman South Africa again in 2013 and finished it to tremendous applause from the crowds.
It’s race day, April 6, 2014, and Team Garwood has a lot on their to-do list: 2.3 miles (3.7 km) of swimming in the Indian Ocean followed by 112 miles (180.25 km) of cycling, and a marathon run of 26.2 miles (42.195 km). 6:45 a.m.: shouts of joy from Nikki as his kayak is pushed into the water. 7:00 a.m.: the swimmers start. Kevin hooks the towline to his belt and sprints into the ocean. Soon, a red kayak can be seen meandering through the throngs of competitors. They finish the swim in an impressive time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Nikki’s mother, Cheryl, helps him change clothes. Then he’s strapped into the front seat of the PINO, snacks are packed, and off they go! In spite of its lightweight racing wheels, the tandem with two riders has twice the weight of the individual competitors with their triathlon machines. And today, the headwind is extremely strong on some parts of the course. But Team Garwood pedals on.
“Go, Dad, go!” Nikki is still brimming with enthusiasm and keeps Kevin going strong. The two long uphill stretches on the 56-mile (90km) lap set them back. “They have to make up time!” Cheryl calls out to us when we arrive at the cycling course. We cheer for Team Garwood as they race past. Nikki and Kevin give it their all once again on the second lap. But it’s not enough: they finish the bike leg in 9 hours and 10 minutes, a mere 10 minutes over the cut off time, and are taken out of the competition. Kevin is unfazed, but not Nikki. He cries bitterly, and his parents have a hard time consoling him.
Nevertheless: “They’re both winners!” The encouraging words come from the commentator, who applauded Team Garwood even before the race began. The dynamic duo proved their status as true Ironmen long ago: in terms of team spirit and as an example of what can be accomplished by working together – with or without a handicap.