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Athletes with Down Syndrome in National Events Represent New Market

20 May, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Here’s something that doesn’t happen very often – but it should. In the last six months alone, two athletes with Down Syndrome have made it to the national stage – one by completing the IRONMAN and one by competing in a collegiate golf championship.

And both serve as proof that event owners can broaden their scope of recruitment.

In November, 20-year-old Chris Nikic made headlines by becoming the first athlete with Down Syndrome to complete a full-distance IRONMAN. Nikic, who raced in the event in Panama City Beach, completed the course in 16:46:09, earning him a mention in the Guinness World Records.

“In the 42-year history of IRONMAN, hundreds of thousands of athletes put themselves to the test at IRONMAN triathlons around the world each year,” noted the IRONMAN organization in a press release. “While abilities of all kinds have been welcomed and celebrated at races throughout the years, Chris is the first person with Down syndrome to even sign up for the event.”

Compounding the triumph was the fact that the Panama City Beach event was the first full-distance IRONMAN event to take place in North America during 2020.

“Nikic became the star of the race,” noted James Dator in SB Nation. “IRONMAN isn’t typically an event that garners much attention, but when people became aware of the feat they started watching in droves. Race organizers live streamed the final two miles of Nikic’s marathon run, shining a spotlight on the incredible athlete.”

And as the sports business industry continues along the comeback trail, it has another inspiration to keep going. Her name is Amy Bockerstette. She already made the news a few years ago when she signed with Paradise Valley Community College, on an athletic scholarship to play golf – a first for any person with Down Syndrome.

Last weekend, she and her teammates competed in the National Junior College Athletic Association national championships, which took place at the Plantation Bay Golf & Country Club in Ormond Beach, Florida. And that made her the first athlete with trisomy 21 to ever compete in a national collegiate championship.

(If you really want to be inspired, watch the video that went viral of her playing the renowned 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale during practice rounds of the 2019 Phoenix Open – as Gary Woodland looked on in open-mouthed amazement).

"I've been blessed to do lot of cool things on the golf course, but that is by far the coolest thing I've ever experienced," Woodland said. "She was phenomenal. And then to step up in front of all the people and the crowd and everything and to hit the shots that she hit and made par. I've never rooted so hard for somebody on a golf course and it was an emotional, emotional really cool experience."

And while Bockerstette’s team did not win the NJCAA tournament, there was no doubt that she, like Nikic, attracted a great deal of attention, according to TechGate, who noted “From her initial front nine in the first round, when a gallery of about a dozen spectators followed her around the course, Bockerstette was a celebrity of sorts. Coaches wanted to meet her, entire teams wanted pictures with her, residents who lived on the golf course came out to talk with Amy and [her father] Joe about the course.”

“People are just moved by her and she loves people,” Bockerstette's mother, Jenny, told ESPN. “So, she’s very responsive to that and we’re very touched by watching the effect that she has on other people. It’s a really cool experience to be part of.”

Nikic and Bockerstette are perhaps the most high-profile athletes with Down Syndrome – but they are far from the only ones. In Raleigh, a program called Abilities Tennis Association of North Carolina, has a hardcore group of athletes with trisomy 21.

And, according to an article in Parks & Recreation, NRPA’s monthly magazine, their weekly sessions on public courts are as important to the players as they are to the onlookers – who quickly discover they’re no different from any other athletes.

“The sounds — cheers when a point is scored, yelps of frustration over the occasional bad shot — can be heard any morning on a thousand municipal courts around the country. Except, these players, who range from raw beginners to being able to hold their own in league play, have developmental disabilities. Many still live with their parents, despite being adults. Some have jobs, some don’t. Some may never have jobs and some live in group homes.”

So the question for many event owners becomes this: Is outreach being made to try to recruit individuals to participate in tournaments? Opportunities (outside of the Special Olympics) tend to be limited – something that feeds into a downward spiral for affected individuals.

Many students with special needs go to public schools alongside their more typical classmates. Those other students, following graduation, will move on to college or work. But, for individuals with developmental disabilities, there’s widespread inertia when not only the routines, but also the friendships are lost. Many become clinically depressed, gain weight and are at risk for diabetes, heart disease and more.

Because individuals with Down Syndrome (and those with other developmental challenges) have been cited as being at increased risk for COVID, the isolation has become even more pronounced during the past year. As vaccination continues, as the risk decreases and as many events reopen, this demographic should be welcomed by event owners.

“You don’t realize how much people depend on this,” says Beth Gibson, who founded Buddy Up Tennis for individuals with Down Syndrome. “I’ll get to the courts every Saturday, and the kids will already be there ahead of me. They’re wearing their T-shirts, they have their racquets, they’re ready to go.”

And Chris Nikic, who made so many headlines, told SDM he thinks event owners should be marketing to this demographic.

"If a Special Olympics athlete like me can do an IRONMAN, I know thousands of others like me who should be given the opportunity to participate in all kinds of activities."

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