Nick Meyer had all but given up on his athletic dreams until he found triathlon.

Robbin Meyer remembers the first time she noticed something was off about her son, Nick. It was 2011 and she and her husband Dan were at a swim meet watching their only child compete. Usually, Nick shined as a swimmer. But that day, after a particularly forgettable 100-meter freestyle race, Nick was so weak, he had to be pulled out of the pool.

Thinking stomach flu, the Meyers brought Nick, then 15, to the doctor in their hometown of Harker Heights, Texas. Labwork revealed an elevated white blood cell count, but there were no other indications of anything amiss. That is, until two months later, when a pair of rectal abscesses, one the size of an orange, began to rupture. Nick endured several emergency surgeries to repair the acute infections and later received the news no kid in the throes of adolescence wants to hear: He had a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract known as Crohn’s disease. The gastroenterologist told his parents it was the worst case he’d ever seen.

Carrying just 75 pounds on his frail frame at the time of his diagnosis, Nick couldn’t fathom getting back in the pool. “I had to stop my husband from throwing away all of his swimming stuff,” Robbin says. “Nick was done. But I didn’t want him to give up.”

Eventually, Nick did return to the swim team in an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, as he navigated life as a teenager with a chronic disease. He focused on his nutrition, tweaked his diet to prevent flares, and slowly began to regain the weight and strength he had shed at his sickest point. Sure, he no longer hit the times in the pool he once did, but by the time his senior year rolled around, Nick was feeling healthy and strong enough to enter a small triathlon at his high school.

And that’s when Nick’s life changed yet again—but this time for the better. Nick wound up on the podium in that very first race, igniting a new passion in a boy who had all but given up on his athletic dreams.

“I was finally good at something again,” he says.

“That felt amazing.”

With a powerful engine developed over a decade in the pool, Nick could out-swim, out-ride and out-run most of his competition. He soon rose to the top of the rankings in central Texas and qualified for USAT Age-Group Nationals. And while his swimming background certainly contributed to his trajectory in the sport, those close to him say it’s not just his endurance base (or three-percent body fat on his 5-foot-8-inch frame) that sets him apart.

“Nick is extremely resilient,” says his high school swimming coach, Kate Eikrem. “He has grit. He works tirelessly to achieve his goals. He’s fought to blaze his own path despite the setbacks and never lets Crohn’s define who he is.”

Today, at 22, Nick is studying kinesiology at Central Texas College and dreams of representing Team USA on the world stage. And despite the physical challenges he faces (the extra fatigue, in particular, can prolong his post-race recovery), he insists that he’ll never use Crohn’s as a crutch.

“Honestly, I am just as healthy as everyone out there,” he says. “I just train hard, and usually, I feel great. Sometimes, I forget I even have it.”