Nadia McKinnon sits at the starting line, her race number pinned on her chest, waiting patiently for her first 5K to begin.
Soon, a pack of runners breeze by, but Nadia’s eyes don’t follow their pounding footsteps.
Instead, Nadia gazes off into the distance searching for her teammate. And as if on cue, Greg Simony speeds up on his bike, jumps off and runs toward Nadia. Greg grabs Nadia’s stroller, and the two take off to join the rest of the pack.
Nadia doesn’t say much during the race, but she doesn’t have to. Her beaming smile and triumphantly raised arms speak for themselves.
“She loves it,” Greg says of Nadia. “The race was hard, but it wasn’t an option to slow down. She wouldn’t let me get away with that. (Nadia) just keeps you going.”
Greg, an East County resident, and Nadia, who was born with cerebral palsy, competed as teammates in their first triathlon — the Tri-Miami — in May. They met seven months ago by an unexpected twist of fate, and since then, the two have become nearly inseparable companions — both striving to change the other’s one step at a time.
“Honestly, the joy that this girl has … if she could, she’d call (me) all day long,” Greg says. “The joy that she’s brought to my life — it’s pretty cool. I’ve learned a lot from her.”
During their first races, Nadia only was able to compete in the running portion. However, the duo hopes to find equipment that will allow her to stay by Greg’s side throughout the entire triathlon — and fulfill Nadia’s lifelong dream of riding a bike.
Nadia isn’t your typical storyteller.
She doesn’t spout off verbose prose or paint a literary picture with her words.
Instead, she simply sits back and observes, all the while letting her radiating smile do the talking.
“She’s very aware of her surroundings, and she understands everything that’s going on, but she doesn’t have the ability to (always) express to us what she wants to say,” Nadia’s mother Hulda McKinnon says.
Born three months premature and only weighing 2 pounds, 8 ounces, Nadia wasn’t expected to survive. But after giving birth to a smiling baby girl, Hulda and her team of doctors learned quickly Nadia wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, her fight and tenacious drive had only just begun.
Three days later, Nadia went into respiratory distress and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy most likely as a result of her underdeveloped lungs. Today, the Sarasota resident uses a wheelchair to get around — the persistent tightness in her legs preventing her from walking.
At 32 years old, Nadia has the cognitive ability of a 5- to 8-year-old. She has a feeding tube to help alleviate some of her gastrointestinal problems and continues to battle a grand mal seizure disorder that she’s been fighting since she was in the first grade.
But to Nadia, none of those obstacles matter. She continues to participate in her favorite sports and activities, including swimming, horseback riding and bowling, and enjoys everyday activities such as watching movies, talking on the phone, going grocery shopping and singing in church.
“We always involve Nadia in everything we do because she wants to be a part of everything,” Hulda says. “I don’t think she really realizes her disability.”
And through it all Nadia has never lost sight of her dream.
“She has her little bouts, but she always bounces back,” Hulda says.
Upon graduating from high school, Greg Simony appeared to have it all.
He earned a scholarship to play baseball for Wayne State College in northeast Nebraska and spent the next two years catching for the Warriors.
But by the end of his sophomore season, Simony was ready to move on. He transferred to Walsh University and earned a degree is business.
Then, his life seemed to spiral nearly out of control. He battled alcohol and nicotine addiction and weight gain for more than 10 years.
But in January, after putting on nearly 50 pounds, the River Pointe resident decided it was time to make a change.
“I said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and I decided I was going to put my all into someone else,” Simony said. “In essence, it’s not about me anymore.”
Greg decided to go to graduate school, looking to become a mental health counselor.
Shortly thereafter, Simony walked into Booker High School and met Hulda, a guidance counselor, for the first time. The two discussed Simony’s desire to compete in a triathlon with an individual with disabilities.
Hulda tried to match Greg up with a child, but her initial thought fell through. At that point Greg approached her with the idea of working with Nadia.
“He said to me, ‘What do you think about your daughter?’ and I said, ‘Nadia — she doesn’t mind doing anything,’” Hulda says.
Greg and Nadia met in February to begin preparing for their first triathlon. The duo set up a rigorous schedule, meeting as often as three days per week for nearly three months.
The pair participated in their first triathlon in May at the Tri-Miami. Greg completed the swimming and biking portions of the race before meeting up with Nadia. Greg and Nadia ran the final leg of the race together as Greg pushed Nadia in a special stroller chair.
“The first time I took her in the stroller when her mother went to pick her up, she bit her,” Greg says. “She really wants to do this.”
Since then, the pair has competed in several other races, including Sammy’s Run in Sarasota. Now Greg is hoping to compete in a triathlon with Nadia by his side for all three legs of the race while helping her fulfill a lifelong dream.
“Her biggest dream is ride a bike, but obviously that’s something she could never do on her own,” Greg says.
However, while Greg and Nadia have the necessary means to complete the running portion of the triathlon, the logistics for the swimming and biking legs of the race still remain up in the air.
The pair is having a difficult time finding a bike with a chair to accommodate Nadia. Additionally, the pair is in need of a special raft with a belt and a harness to hold Nadia in, who isn’t able to swim on her own or breathe underwater.
But after spending the past seven months with Nadia, Greg has learned that even the most insurmountable odds can be overcome.
“The biggest thing her and I want to do is motivate and inspire people,” Greg says. “When you get caught up in life, you can get into unhealthy patterns. We want to show people that there are things you can control. Certain things can’t be taken away.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].
Those interested in making a donation or learning more about Greg and Nadia’s triathlon dream can do so by contacting Greg at [email protected].