After crossing the finish line with aching muscles and a rapid-beating heart, Chris Nikic knew he had proven himself yet again. The 23-year-old athlete with Down syndrome was the first Special Olympics Florida athlete to complete the second annual Race for Inclusion at Flavet Field Saturday.
Special Olympics Florida collaborated with the University of Florida’s Special Olympics College to host the statewide fundraising event. This year’s Race for Inclusion had more than 400 athletes register to participate – three times more than last year’s event of about 150 people.
The race is open to anyone willing to walk or run a 5K in support of athletes with disabilities. The mission is to raise awareness and help fund Special Olympics’ program that provides more than 60,000 Special Olympics Florida athletes with sports training for competitions, health services and leadership activities.
“Training like this is tough,” Nikic said.
His first-place accomplishment at the Race for Inclusion was not his first time breaking stigmas by exerting his physical and mental strength. Nikic was the first-ever athlete with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman triathlon in 2020. His athleticism has propelled him to continue competing in athletic events like Race for Inclusion.
Nikic finished the 5K in 42 minutes and 32 seconds, running nonstop. His first mile time was 19 minutes and 16 seconds, his second was 11 minutes and 31 seconds, and his last was 11 minutes and 45 seconds.
“You can be anything you want,” he said. “I like being active.”
Nikic said he wants to gather a community of athletes with disabilities and make them feel supported. He said his hard work and dedication have inspired people with and without disabilities, and he wants the public to recognize his commitment and legacy.
And Nikic was not the only one feeling sore and tired at the end of the race.
After running his first 5K, Alan Sullivan said his feet hurt. His wife, Kim Lee, laughed in agreement.
“It was great… until we had to go up the hill,” Lee said.
Sullivan and Lee recently became members of Special Olympics Florida and have competed in other sporting events like bowling and basketball. They participated in Race for Inclusion through The Arc, the largest national community-based organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The couple said they thoroughly enjoyed the event, as they both held two thumbs up, walking side by side after completing the race.
“It’s one thing to sign up for a 5K, and it’s another thing to want to be here,” said Lance Duch, executive board member for the event.
Duch, 22, said he was excited to see a larger turnout than last year. He said his passion is to play and coach sports for UF’s Special Olympics College, and his position in planning the Race for Inclusion was an extension of that love for this community.
“When it all comes all together, it makes it worth it,” he said.
Race for Inclusion Program Director Savannah Townsend, 20, shared the same enthusiastic attitude.
Townsend was instrumental in hosting this event for the Special Olympics Florida athletes. As the program director, she has been planning the event for a year, analyzing what improvements the team could make to increase turnout and enhance public awareness about Special Olympics Florida and its mission.
She said the most challenging aspect has been getting people to stop turning away when they hear the words “Special Olympics.”
“They kind of just assume that only people with disabilities can be a part of it,” she said. “So I think one of the hardest parts is just creating a community where we have involvement with people with and without disabilities.”
Townsend said educating people about Race for Inclusion’s mission and goals is her role’s most fulfilling yet challenging part.
As a mother to a son with autism, Christine Rodriguez understands this struggle.
Rodriguez’s son, Christopher Williams, 21, has been a Special Olympics Florida athlete for a year. She said she is humbled by the overwhelming support the Race for Inclusion team has shown the Special Olympics athletes and their families.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful event,” she said. “Because, you know, it brings awareness to autism and all disabilities, and I’m so impressed that these students are so involved in making a difference.”
Williams’ team is called “Superman’s Supporters” because Williams is Superman for his team. The group raised $555 thanks to donations from his family and friends. Williams completed the 5K with his family cheering him on all the way to the finish line.