Being the parent of an Olympic athlete is filled with many challenges, emotions and moments of pure pride and joy. Teamsters Local 700 member Mark Nichol couldn’t be more proud of his son, Chris, who recently competed and medaled as a Team USA athlete during the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.
Mark has worked for the City of Chicago for the last 33 years and is currently a foreman in Streets and Sanitation. For the last 20 years, he’s watched Chris, who was born with an intellectual disability, flourish into a wonderful young man and an Olympic athlete.
Chris first enjoyed the water when he was a young child. “I have been swimming since I was three-years-old,” said Chris. “During the summer we would go to our lake house in Wisconsin and I usually went water tubing.”
After realizing his enjoyment of swimming, his parents started taking him to swimming lessons when he was 5 at the Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles. At age 8, Chris started swimming competitively when he joined the Conquerors, a 13-member YMCA swim team for individuals who are developmentally or physically challenged. The program was started around 47 years ago at the Leaning Tower YMCA and is coached pro bono by a husband and wife team that have been with the group for more than 20 years.
The Conquerors have the large pool to themselves at the YMCA every Thursday night for an hour of practice. During his time on the Conquerors, Chris won many gold medals for Special Olympics aquatics events in Illinois.
Chris attended high school at Notre Dame College Prep, the only all-boys Catholic school in Illinois that has a special education program. Before he graduated in 2014, he was a member of the school’s swim team.
In a previous interview, Notre Dame College Prep’s Assistant Varsity Swim Coach Steve Jankowski said Chris was the heart and soul of the varsity team. “His hard work in practice, his love for his teammates and coaches and his performances in the pool were truly an inspiration to everyone around him,” said Jankowski. “The word ‘special’ does not even begin to describe what a great young man he is.”
Preparing for the Main Event
In the fall of 2014, Chris was invited to participate on the Special Olympics USA Team for the upcoming summer games due to his times and wins from his Special Olympics Illinois meets.
Chris recalled the excitement that surrounded his friends and family upon hearing the news. “My aunt made me a cake that said “Team USA, Go Chris!”
The 2015 Special Olympics World Games kicked off in Los Angeles, with a grand opening ceremony featuring famous musicians, actors and politicians at the LA Memorial Coliseum. More than 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from 170 nations gathered to compete in 25 Olympic-type sports including aquatics, gymnastics, track and field, basketball, football (soccer) and many other summer sports from July 25 – Aug. 2, 2015.
Chris was part of a team of 15 Illinois athletes and eight coaches who were named to Special Olympics USA, a delegation of 491 members that represented the United States at the summer games. Out of the nearly 30 swimmers that came to the games from around the world, he was the only swimmer from Illinois.
Chris took home two silver medals from his performances in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke events and also swam in the 100 meter butterfly and the 100 meter relay team event. “The butterfly is the tough one,” said Chris.
All of the Olympic games were held at the University of Southern California campus. The athletes and their families stayed in the dorms making it an Olympic “village” for the week. The entire Nichol family traveled to California to see Chris perform.
“The games were so well put together and it was such a great experience for Chris and our family,” said Mark. “I wish everyone could attend a Special Olympics game to see the way the athletes bonded with each other. Even if they couldn’t speak the same language, they would hug and try to talk to wish each other good luck.”
Upon arriving home, Chris received a lot of attention from his fans, the media and his family. “My friends and neighbors were waiting for me with signs when we got home,” said Chris. “That was pretty cool to see everyone so happy for me. My mom keeps my medals in a cabinet but we’re hoping to display them at home.”
Chris currently swims two to three times a week at the YMCA to keep in shape, which is about half of the time he had to put in when he was practicing for the Olympics. He works part-time at Jewel-Osco and is a student at Harper Junior College studying self-advocacy, reading and math.
The next World Summer Games will be held in 2019 and Chris is excited at the prospect of participating again.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” said Mark. “Everything he does, he works really hard at.”
About Special Olympics
Special Olympics began in Illinois with the first games at Soldier Field in July 1968 thanks to the efforts of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her peers. There are now more than 4.4 million athletes with intellectual disabilities within 170 countries involved in Special Olympics programs. In Illinois alone, there are nearly 22,000 athletes and 40,000 volunteers that participate in Special Olympics across all 102 counties of the state.
Special Olympics is a global organization that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sport, every day around the world. Through programming in sports, health, education and community building, Special Olympics is changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities solving the global injustice, isolation, intolerance and inactivity they face.