As 363 participants lined up for the Dubai Holding SkyRun – 52 floors, 1,334 steps of Emirates Towers in Dubai – one man seemed to attract quite some attention. Former British Royal Marine and fitness expert, Nick Watson, 46. The reason: he had his son, Rio, 13, in a sling across his back. Nick was going to run up 1,334 steps with his 27kg son strapped to him.
Rio is a special needs child with a rare chromosome disorder called 1q44 deletion de novo syndrome. He gets seizures, is non-verbal, has severe learning disabilities. His gross and fine motor skills are severely affected and he has sensory integration dysfunction, among other challenges.
Rio’s mother Delphine was also there at the run, watching her son and husband prepare for the mission. ‘You can see that my daughter Tia, who’s nine, is taller than Rio, and that’s just the physical part,’ says Delphine.
But in spite of this the Watson family – who call themselves Team Angel Wolf (the parents are the Team Wolf, while Rio is the ‘angel’ and Tia the ‘little wolf’) – participated in around 30 races last year. Incredible considering that Nick, who is now setting up a business of his own in Dubai, started taking Rio on various races only from 2014.
While some would view Rio’s story as one of heartbreak and hardship, others see it as a series of trials and triumph. Nick and Delphine, however, consider Rio a blessing.
Rio was born in 2003, five years after the Watsons moved to the UAE. ‘From the time we found from a scan that it was a boy, I’d been dreaming of taking him on marathons and triathlons,’ says Nick. But the dreams came crashing down when six months after birth, Rio began having crippling seizures. ‘He had a seizure in the bath one day and became unconscious,’ says Delphine. ‘We panicked and rushed him to the hospital, but 15 minutes later he came out of it as if nothing had happened. By the time we reached the hospital he was absolutely normal and they couldn’t find anything wrong. We told them 10 minutes back he’d almost died.’
The next morning it happened again. ‘This time the doctors determined it was a seizure but weren’t sure what kind,’ says Delphine.
‘They told me to take him to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. We did, but the doctors there couldn’t diagnose his condition either.’
It was only when Rio was four and Delphine was pregnant again with daughter Tia that Rio’s condition was diagnosed. When Delphine underwent tests, it was discovered that she has a chromosome disorder. This led to Rio’s diagnosis – major issues with walking and speech, and developmental issues among others.
Nick threw himself into his work to cope. But the family soon decided they would not allow Rio’s illness to drive them into a shell. Instead they started organising events to help kids like Rio. ‘We did – and still do – an event called Reaching You, a huge free event in Zabeel Park; a party in the park with a huge stage, bouncing castle, and free food and drinks, and gifts and toys for the children who come,’ says Nick.
‘All kids with special needs as well as mainstream children are invited. I go to all schools to tell our story and invite the kids. The day is really about integration, allowing mainstream children to mingle with special needs kids and learning to integrate. Last year we had more than 5,000 people attending on a Saturday afternoon.’
Delphine then came up with the idea of buying items such as footballs and toys to give to special needs kids.
‘We bought six wheelchairs that float in water and got regular kids to help special needs children to enjoy playing on water with them,’ says Nick. ‘It proved to be a revelation. One boy who was 16 told us that he’d never been to the beach in his life! He moved me to tears.’
Delphine and Nick had been doing this for eight years, when Nick had a wake-up call in the form of a colon cancer scare. ‘It shook me enough to revaluate everything,’ he says. ‘And then I thought, why should Rio not participate in triathlons. I had been doing them since I was 16, and Rio would never get a chance to experience it unless I did it with him.’
Crazy as it sounded, Nick was determined and Delphine was supportive. However, special equipment was required for Rio. Nick reached out to the athletic community in Dubai, and Adventure HQ boss Sam Whittam responded with the required kit.
Now, Team Angel Wolf was in place, all set to take on the 2014 Dubai International Triathlon.
‘We still had no idea whether Rio would be able to sit on a bike for three-and-a-half hours,’ says Nick. ‘But when we actually got under way at the Dubai Triathlon, every time we stopped to give him water, he was signing “Come on Dad!”’
‘We were all anxious but positive,’ says Delphine. ‘When Nick and Rio reached the finish line it was such a breakthrough for us as a family!’
Nick still revels about the moment. ‘It was the most unbelievable feeling for me as a father.’
Since then Team Angel Wolf have gone from strength to strength. They’ve entered many races and together they are now regulars who are looked upon as equals in the UAE triathlon community.
Rio always goes with Nick when he participates in races, either strapped to his back, riding alongside on the modified bike, or pulled behind him in a specially adapted kayak.
Last year, they participated in 15 gruelling races, and never once has Rio wanted to stop. ‘He signs to me to keep going even after we’ve finished!’ laughs Nick.
April 30 this year was a big day for Team Angel Wolf – Rio participated in his first-ever duathlon, the Giant Duathlon by Race ME at the Nad Al Sheba Cycling Track, all by himself.
And he did it his own way – walking along holding on to Delphine for support, riding on his bike with stabilisers with a little help from Delphine again, with Tia cheering and running alongside, and other children cheering him on from the sidelines.
‘When Rio was four years old we doubted that he would ever be able to walk, never mind enter a duathlon!’ said Delphine after the race. ‘There is no limit to what Rio can be included in… only our own inability or limitations for trying them!’
Meanwhile, Nick also tries to get the word out about inclusion for special needs people. ‘I go and speak at any school that will allow me and tell them our story, hoping to inspire the next generation. We want to encourage inclusion, spread awareness about special needs, and also inspire them to do sports to stay healthy.’ Nick is now in the process of getting five running chairs a special needs person can use to compete, to encourage children or adults to be a part of this programme.
‘Parents can train with their kids, or there are so many serious runners who would love to run pushing the kids,’ he says. ‘We are looking for sponsors for this programme.’
The Watsons believe Rio doesn’t have disabilities. ‘He has abilities, which we are on a mission to find ways to help shine,’ says Delphine. ‘All that restricts him in life was broken down with these activities.’
Nick and Delphine don’t even pause to consider how life would have been if Rio had been ‘normal’. ‘Rio has changed our lives and destinies,’ says Nick. ‘We were passionate about health and fitness. After Rio came we still are, but also passionate about engaging with other families with special needs children, and raising awareness about this condition. In fact, Tia says everybody should have a brother or sister with special needs as they are so much kinder and fun!’
There are, of course, people who still question why they do what they do. Nick answers with a little anecdote. ‘When Rio and I were on our second race together, the Dubai Challenge, we were hit by a huge sandstorm, and the swim was really tough going against the current. Finally, for the cycle race we went out to Academic City and were returning, about 23km to go, when the wind hit us from all directions. I could see the Burj in the distance, the sand blowing around us, and I was terrified of how Rio would react, when he turned and signed, “Dada, I love you!”
‘I was in tears, and energised at the same time. That to me summarises why we do this. If he’s happy, we are happy, and he just loves doing this.’
He pauses. ‘I am not trying to break any records. It’s just about Rio having a great time.’
Nick still has one more dream. ‘When Delphine was pregnant with Rio, I raced at the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii, and thought I’d love to do it later with my son,’ he says. ‘Now, the dream is to go back and race with Rio.’