After Nick Watson’s son was diagnosed with a rare disease, the Dubai-based fitness expert decided to raise awareness of disability through sport and inclusion. Here, he talks to Vision Sport about his inspirational project
Families dealing with disability do so in myriad ways, but competing in triathlons with your son as you pull him in a kayak, carry him on a bike and push him during the run is not all that common.
Enter Nick Watson, whose son Rio suffers from an extremely rare chromosomal disorder that severely affects his motor skills and his ability to speak.
Their triathlon story began three years ago. After a cancer scare, fitness enthusiast Nick decided he wanted to do something for himself and rekindle an old passion for racing – an Iron Man triathlon, as it turned out.
A few months into training, however, and Nick was struggling for motivation. One morning, his wife Delphine turned to him and asked if he had ever thought about running the race with Rio. They knew it would be far from easy, but Nick was determined to make it happen.
“I did my first triathlon when I was 16, and the thing that really inspired the idea was the thought that Rio would never get to experience what I did getting across that finish line,” Watson says.
Given Rio’s difficulties with speech and fine motor skills, there were concerns about how he would take the pressures of a triathlon.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a gamble,” says Watson.
“But it was something we had to experiment with. We weren’t sure if he would just jump out of the kayak and swim home. And then 90km on the front of a bike – would he just get bored? Most children would.”
In the end, the pair successfully completed the course and crossed the finish line to cheers and applause, but it was their second race – the Challenge Dubai triathlon in 2015 – that Nick marks as the turning point in their story. Racing conditions were not ideal to say the least, as vicious sandstorms battered the emirate.
With 30km to go on the bike, and the towering spire of the Burj Khalifa barely visible, Nick was concerned that Rio would want to stop. Yet when Nick turned round to check on his son, he looked back, his eyes a little bloodshot from the sand, and said, “Daddy, I love you.”
“I was in bits after that”, says Watson. “The next 30km were probably the easiest I’ve ever done in my life. Six and a half hours of racing and he was all smiles. He absolutely adores it.”
The pair haven’t looked back since, and recently completed their 78th race together – a staggering number by any measure. Racing is now a whole family affair for the Watsons, though, with Delphine and daughter Tia joining them on the track. Together, they are best known as Team Angel Wolf, a combination of Rio and Tia’s nicknames – Angel and Little Wolf.
Nick and his family have lived in Dubai for 20 years now, and it’s proven to be the perfect home for the team.
“It’s a great lifestyle here, but when it comes to things like racing, we are just spoilt rotten,” enthuses Watson. They have completed 40 races this season, and with so many events available in the area their weekends are nearly always occupied.
“If a race gets cancelled on a Friday, I can call up an organiser and race on the Saturday,” he adds.
At the end of March, Rio took the next step and completed his first solo triathlon with the help of mum Delphine. For Nick, taking a back seat and watching his son compete without him is equally as moving.
“It’s just hugely emotional,” he explains.
“We’ve never known what the future holds for Rio. In the early days we had specialists questioning whether he would ever walk, so to see him complete his first ever triathlon just made me so extremely proud of his achievements, which I think is really inspiring many people.”
And it certainly is. The family has always aimed to increase awareness about disability: since Team Angel Wolf received its official licence as a non-profit organisation in December, Nick has been allowed to go into schools to give talks, claiming he has now spoken to over 16,000 students. They also offer corporate talks in an effort to spread Rio’s story.
“Hopefully by telling the story, by raising awareness and inspiring people to get fit and healthy, we can encourage people to go out there and do something,” Watson says.
“Many people don’t see disability that often, but with Rio it becomes such a positive thing; that’s our goal. We’re desperate to take this story further afield.”
Health and fitness have long been part of the Watsons’ lives, and they’re eager to get others up and running with them. In fact, the team has targeted the Dubai marathon in January as the next stage of its mission, aiming to build a full team of racers pushing others in wheelchairs.
“We're getting hold of a few specially made wheelchairs to push people of all disabilities. Any child out there can participate; parents can participate if they want,” Watson reveals.
Ultimately, the idea is for Team Angel Wolf to represent an entire concept with an international reach.
And with supporters already racing in their team’s kit in places as far as the USA, there is no reason why they can’t continue to push the boundaries of what Rio and others with disabilities can do.