Like any new dad, he dreamt of playing sport with his son one day. But when Kevin Garwood’s baby was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he abandoned those dreams. Kevin also gave up his job to take care of Nicholas, the son he loved more than life itself – but in the process he took on his son’s disability. He wouldn’t take part in any sport, believing one can’t compete with a disabled child. Until eight months ago, when Kevin saw a video clip of an American father competing in triathlons with his disabled son…
That was the day a nearly forgotten dream came alive in Kevin’s heart. When he showed the clip to 11-year-old Nicholas and saw the excitement in his son’s eyes, Kevin realised that nothing is impossible. Today this Johannesburg father and son take on sporting events that most able-bodied people wouldn’t dream of doing. This is the story of Team Garwood’s incredible journey towards their first Ironman triathlon.
The finish line of an Ironman race is an emotional place to be. For hundreds of athletes worldwide, the weeks and months of hard training and discipline culminate at the finish of these gruelling triathlons. And at each race, everyone from the elites to the backmarkers emerges as a champion in their own right. But at the recent Spec-Savers Ironman 70.3 SA, the image of two competitors will be etched into the memories of many fellow athletes and spectators for years to come.
When Kevin Garwood lined up with his disabled son for the 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1km run, very few people were left untouched. Finishing this gruelling race on one’s own is a great feat in itself, but swimming, cycling and running with a disabled son is a commitment that goes far beyond that, and is one of the greatest gifts a father can give his son. Kevin pulled Nicholas in a special boat as they swam and towed him in a special trailer behind his bike for the cycle leg. Unfortunately Kevin did not manage to make the four-hour cut-off for the cycle leg and was not allowed to continue the run. Nevertheless, on that day, he not only realised his dream of competing in a sport with his disabled son, but his performance also brought inspiration to so many others.
Kevin and Nicholas had only been competing in triathlons for six months before they took on Ironman 70.3, held on 17 January in Buffalo City. “We had an awesome swim, but the cycle was just too tough. About 15km into the cycle I realised we won’t make the cut-off time. I asked the support crew if we should stop or carry on. They phoned the race director, Paul Wolf, and he said the people want us to finish. We eventually finished the cycle in six hours and the crowds went wild.” They are happy regardless of the result and plan to tackle Ironman 70.3 as well as the full Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run) in 2011. “We are grateful to Triangle Sports who sponsored our entry and to all the supporters. We will be back.”
Nicholas was a premature baby born at 35 weeks and suffered distress as the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. His left eye did not develop fully in the early stages of pregnancy and as a baby, he had an expander inserted to help grow the socket in which his prosthetic eye now fits.
When Nicholas battled to grow according to the standard milestones of child development, Kevin (46) and his wife, Cheryl (43), took him to a paediatrician who initially dismissed their concerns. A second opinion from another paediatrician established that Nicholas had a serious brain injury. He was diagnosed with Athetoid cerebral palsy with spasticity. Simply explained, this is a condition where the brain can’t send the correct messages to the muscles. Doctors told the couple that their son would never be able to walk or talk, that he would be in a state of vegetation, and would be uneducable. One doctor even suggested the Garwood’s find a suitable home for their son and ‘get on with their lives’. But the couple refused to give up hope. “Nicholas had a home; we did not need to find him a home. We refused to give up on him,” says Cheryl. The couple came across an American home-based therapy programme to help with Nicholas’ development. Kevin stopped working when Nicholas was two years old to take care of him fulltime. Cheryl, a manager at a large financial institution, kept things going on the work front.
The therapy programme did wonders for Nicholas, but after about three years, the Garwoods decided to stop as it was so intensive that volunteers were needed to help with hourly therapy sessions. Nicholas started attending a school for special needs children, but his parents were disappointed with his progress and decided to home school him. “He has just finished grade two and half of grade three and has made such good progress. He can be as naughty as any other school kid. At the end of November I said to him, ‘We have some books left to finish before we can go on holiday.’ Within two days he was finished with a week’s work and proclaimed he was ready for his holiday! He has a good understanding and a great sense of humour,” says Kevin.
THE START OF A COURAGEOUS JOURNEY
Kevin, who used to do a bit of running, has spent every possible hour of every day of the last years trying to enrich his son’s life. But the thought of competing in a sport with his son never really crossed his mind. “I never thought the two of us could do
something together. When you look at sport you sometimes have tunnel vision. You imagine only able-bodied people can compete and only those who are disabled in a certain way,” says Kevin.
In April last year he received a video clip from his pastor’s wife that would change his life forever. It was a clip called ‘My Redeemer Lives’ and it showed an American father, Dick Hoyt, participating in an Ironman event with his disabled son, Rick, who has cerebral palsy caused by loss of oxygen to his brain at birth (see next page).
“I burst into tears when I saw it. As a father one of my biggest dreams was to one day be there for my son and support him in sporting events. I could never do that. Over the years I almost took on my son’s disability and limited my own physical abilities. When I saw this video I realised there was a way to compete with my son.”
Kevin showed the video clip to his wife and then to Nicholas. “I asked him if he would like to do it and he immediately replied, ‘Yes, of course!’” At that stage Kevin did not even own a pair of running shoes, a swimsuit or a bike. He was unfit and about 10kg overweight, but the possibility of fulfilling a lifelong dream was far greater than any obstacles.
At first Kevin started training slowly. “I started out on a mountain bike but was so unfit everyone had to stop and wait for me.” His brother-in-law researched on the Internet and found a Wike, a trailer that converts into a jogger. It is specially made in Canada for special needs children. The Wike, which is much bigger than a normal jogger, hooks onto the back axle of a bike and when cycling, it looks like a trailer at the back of the bike. Adding a front wheel converts it into a jogger for running.
Kevin imported the Wike, which was probably the greatest gift he could ever give Nicholas. It arrived a week before his son’s birthday in May last year. Their first official race together was the 702 Walk the Talk before they tackled the Dome to Dome 40km cycle race. “That race was a wake up call for me because I realised I am nowhere near as fi t as I needed to be. The Wike weighs about 15kg and Nicholas another 30kg. Add that to my own weight and that of the bike and you can imagine the weight I need to cycle with,” says Kevin.
He refused to give up and worked hard on his fitness, losing 10kg in the process. Dad and son competed in the Mini Afriman, the 94.7 Cycle Challenge and a number of duathlons, triathlons, short road races and cycling events, learning as they went along. “In our first duathlon we were last! It took us forever to finish. Before the last run I asked Nicholas if we should stop or carry on. When he said, ‘I want my medal, Dad!’ we pushed on. People were just so supportive. By the time we were finishing they were already in their cars on their way home. But when they saw us, many stopped, got out of their cars and cheered us on.”
Kevin always makes sure he is allowed to compete with Nicholas before entering any race. “We have found the triathlon community to be very accommodating and open to us. The running community has been a bit more difficult as not all road races, especially the longer races, allow wheelchairs or joggers.”
THE LONG ROAD
When doing triathlons the family usually wakes up very early, as there is so much preparation to do and equipment to pack. “The night before a race Nicholas is always excited! He talks about it and wakes up early the next morning, telling everyone to get dressed,” says Kevin.
Arriving at events Team Garwood needs to keep focused when preparing as they have so much more to take into consideration than the average competitor. Kevin usually starts at the back when the swimming leg begins. He puts Nicholas into a kayak and swims with a ski rope attached to a hook on the boat and a belt on a harness he wears. “Nicholas loves the water and usually tells everyone around him to swim faster.”
When they get out of the water, Kevin carries Nicholas in his arms and runs with him to the transition area where the bikes are. “For us it is quite a mission going through the transition area. I need to see to Nicholas, to myself and organise our equipment. And don’t forget, I am also very competitive! It’s funny how competitive others can become when they see us passing them.”
Kevin puts Nicholas in the Wike, making sure he is well hydrated. “It’s very safe and stable. I have gone over 50km/hour on downhills.” Because the races are all endurance-based, the couple has taught Nicholas to hold his own bottle and drink water whenever he wants to. “We also pack sandwiches for him in case he gets hungry,” says Cheryl.
Kevin finds the cycling leg the hardest discipline, as the extra weight of the Wike and Nicholas’ weight make it tough, especially riding up hills. After the cycle Kevin converts the Wike into a jogger by adding a front wheel to it. Team Garwood’s strongest discipline is running and they have managed to get their running times down to about 55 minutes for 10km. “Nicholas loves to encourage me and usually shouts, ‘Run faster Daddy!’ or ‘Go Daddy go!’ He is not scared and loves it. His mom is more nervous than us!’”
Cheryl says Nicholas always shouts at the finish line, “I did it! I did it!” He also gets very upset when they finish a race and there is no medal at the end. “A T-shirt just doesn’t do it for him.”
AN AWESOME JOURNEY
Their journey has been filled with obstacles but at the same time, it has been amazing and inspiring. “It’s phenomenal what it has done for Nicholas. We can see a change in his personality, his speech is more fluent and he has a memory of note,” says Cheryl.
One thing they have realised is that there is no need to limit their lives or what they can do. “Sport has enriched our lives tremendously. Parents of special needs children should not impose limits on themselves and hide their children away,” says Cheryl.
When they look at their son with his two deep dimples, they see nothing but love. “As parents we look at our son with all the obstacles he has to face; yet he has such strong faith. He is an example to us. We admire his spontaneity and determination. And he loves people! He talks to everybody and reaches out to them. We were in the supermarket once and he reached out to a strange woman, grabbed her hand and said, ‘I love you.’ That is just the way he is. One of the things that is heartbreaking is that he wants to help with everything, but he is just so limited in what he can do,” says Cheryl.
Competing together as father and son has strengthened the strong bond Kevin and Nicholas have always had. “The journey has been good for both of us. We have always been close, but this has enhanced our bond. I believe nothing is impossible. One should never give up hope or believing. Our strong love bond with Nicholas has carried us through.”