Walt Disney World Resort has long been a place where friends and family gather to celebrate the special moments in their lives. That tradition continued earlier this week when guest Chris Nikic reunited with cast member Jennifer Sturgess at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where she works. Their reunion was one of magical proportions!
Chris, who lives here in Central Florida, set a Guinness World Record in November as the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. When he visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios this week, it was to reunite with training partners he now calls friends, including our own Jennifer Sturgess.
Jennifer and Chris first met last January through the Central Florida Tri Club, which includes Special Olympic athletes in their training programs. Since then, she has spent nearly every weekend training with Chris to help prepare him to tackle his goal of completing a grueling Ironman race. “We knew we had our work cut out for us to get Chris ready, so we really ramped up training,” Jennifer said. “I would spend several hours with him on Saturdays for our long bike rides and three to four hours on Sundays for our long runs. I also had to ensure I was ready for the race so I could help support Chris.”
When it came time for the big race, Jennifer was by Chris’ side for the entire 112-mile bike course, encouraging him along the way. “Chris has had multiple ear surgeries which can affect his balance and ability to dismount the bike, so my job was not only to pace and encourage him but also to help keep him safe,” Jennifer said. “For Chris to persevere and complete the bike portion of the race with nine minutes to spare really was a miracle.”
And although it wasn’t planned in advance, Jennifer ran the last 17 miles of the marathon with Chris, counting cones along the way to help keep him engaged. “Shortly after the bike portion, our triathlon club got a frantic call from our coach that Chris was struggling in the last leg of the race and needed everyone to surround him and cheer him on,” Jennifer said. “Because I was a participant, I was able to get back on the course and encourage him across the finish line with our other training partners.”
For those not familiar with Ironman rules, Chris had 17 hours to complete a 2.4-mile swim in the ocean, a 112-mile bike course and a 26.2-mile run. With the help of Jennifer and his other guides, Chris made history and completed the race in 16 hours, 46 minutes and nine seconds.
Chris’ journey has broken down barriers for people who have Down syndrome and inspired so many along the way. During the last few miles of the race, a spectator began running alongside Chris and his guides while holding up his phone to Facetime his sister who just recently gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. Fighting back tears during a nutrition stop, the gentleman shared his story with Chris and his support team and spoke about the hope it’s given his sister. “He said what we’re doing for Chris is what his sister hopes for with her child,” Jennifer said.
From overcoming adversity to achieving a dream, there are so many things to love about Chris and Jennifer’s journey together and what it meant to everyone involved. “This truly was a life changing moment for me,” Jennifer said. “Inclusion has always been important to me and to Disney, but this really showed me the power of it. Ironman’s slogan is ‘Anything is Possible,’ but these races are so incredibly difficult for every athlete. But when people rallied around Chris to help him, include him and support him, the power was just unbelievable. He completed this race himself, but the power of inclusion was there pushing and guiding him along the way.”
If you ask Chris what the most important part of his Ironman journey is, he’ll tell you it’s the friends like Jennifer he’s made along the way. And what better place for five friends to get together and celebrate such an amazing accomplishment than right here at Walt Disney World?