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Sixteen years ago, Nick Watson stood at the water’s edge in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, seconds from starting the Ironman World Championships. The moment, he recalls, was epic: Not only was he competing in his dream race, but his wife, Delphine, was pregnant with their first child. There was so much he had to look forward to, as life burst with potential of what could be. For the next several hours racing under the hot, Hawaiian sun, Watson excitedly envisioned the future—one that involved one day competing in triathlon alongside his child.
Fast forward to 2020 and Watson, 50, is currently fulfilling that vision, as he and his son, Rio, have completed in some endurance events together. But the journey to get there was far more circuitous than Watson could have ever imagined. First, Rio, was born with a rare chromosome disorder that’s linked to a complexity of challenges, like seizures, intellectual disabilities, and developmental issues. Later, Watson endured a series of traumatic events, including the loss of a business, the death of a close family member, and a colon cancer scare. The burden—and what he saw as the destruction of so many of his dreams—was almost too much for Watson to bear.
“I was at rock bottom,” says Watson, a British-born expat now living in Dubai. “I could have chosen to stay there, but I knew something had to change. It guided me back to the basics of life and made me reevaluate my priorities.”
For Watson, that meant focusing on his health and family—and finding a way to race with Rio, who is also nonverbal. “He may never be able to independently participate and experience sport as we can freely choose to do, but I wanted to give him the experience and opportunity of inclusion. That was my awakening.”
So Watson began seeking out triathlons that would allow him to race with his son. He secured equipment—a kayak in which Rio would sit for the swim, an adapted bike, and a disability running chair. A couple of months later, the two were toeing the line of a half-Ironman.
“It took us six-and-a-half hours,” Watson remembers of that first race. “When we got to the finish line, Rio turned back to look at me, smiled and signed ‘more.’ He loved it.” The Watsons have since produced an impressive race resume including 17 half-Ironmans, and 80 running events up to the 50K distance. The pair has also tackled open-water swimming, even setting a duo of Guinness world records for the fastest 10K and 5K while pulling a canoe or kayak on Watson’s 50th birthday last November. Rio happily sat in a black kayak while smiling and singing as Watson navigated the chop of the Persian Gulf, completing 5K in 2:42 and 10K in 6:06 with his son in tow.
“Rio’s energy fuels me,” Watson says. “Despite his disabilities, he’s found his passion in life, where he is at his happiest when we’re racing. He just gives me the biggest smile and signs ‘I love you.’ It’s the biggest motivational boost.”
Wanting to share such “magical connections” with others living with disabilities, Watson and his family, which also includes 11-year-old daughter Tia, started Team Angel Wolf, a non-profit promoting inclusivity with the hope of building a healthier, kinder community. To date, Team Angel Wolf members have completed in several triathlons, running and obstacle races, and served as ambassadors for the Special Olympics World Games.
While tending for a disabled child and juggling his own training, a career, and a nonprofit certainly has its challenging moments, Watson says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“Everything fell into place,” he says of the way life has worked out. “Just in a slightly different way to what we originally imagined.”