Watching the broadcast of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games quickly turned Nicole Marie Gonzales’s life in a new direction.

“I want to do that, Mom!” she exclaimed.



Nicole Gonzalez
Nicole winning 1st Place at the Tennessee Special Olympics Summer Games in 2014

Two months later, the Lafayette, La., teenager, who has mild paralysis and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), entered a local Special Olympics competition in nearby New Iberia and won first place in the 50-meter run and softball throw events. She cherished standing on the top step when she received her medals, just like the champions she’d seen on TV.

“I knew I could do it,” she says now.

As it happens, the self-confident Nicole, 21, can do a whole lot more. This summer, the track-and-field athlete is competing in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. She and her mother, Debra, moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., two and a half years ago to take advantage of the educational and training services at Orange Grove Center, a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping those with intellectual disabilities. And Nicole is the center’s first athlete in 30 years to compete at the world level.

When Nicole and Debra went to Tennessee, Nicole’s dad, Curtis, stayed behind in Louisiana, where he works in the oil fields. But he and Nicole’s two brothers, Casey and Kyle, plan to be together to cheer Nicole on in the 100-meter race, the 400-meter relay (she's the anchor leg of the team) and the shot put.



Nicole Gonzalez
Nicole competing (and winning) the softball throw at the Tennessee Area 4 2014 Summer Games.

Making Amazing Progress

Nicole, the baby of the family, was born healthy but contracted a potentially lethal bacterial infection during her C-section delivery. When she was a month old, she experienced a stroke and massive heart attack that has left her with Cardiomyopathy. It also destroyed the entire left hemisphere of her brain — the region that governs speech production. It took many years for the right side of Nicole’s brain to take over some of that work and enable her to speak in complete sentences, but despite significant cognitive issues, Nicole is bright, high-functioning and independent.

Last December, Nicole moved into a group home with two roommates. She does laundry, cleans the bathroom, makes her bed and assists with cooking. “I'm very proud of myself,” she says. “I didn't know if I could live on my own.”

“It's part of maturing and being able to let go,” Debra agrees.



Nicole Gonzalez
Nicole and family in Louisiana at a party celebrating her upcoming participation in the World Games.

A Day in the Life of an Athlete

Nicole misses her mother’s food, but she is trying to be a healthy eater. “I haven't been able to give up french fries quite yet,” she confesses, but she does eat plenty of salads. On an average day, Nicole wakes up at 6 a.m. and makes her lunch, before going back to bed for a little. Then caretakers drive her to Orange Grove Center, where she holds a full-time job in the recycling department. The amount of plastic and glass that comes by on the conveyor belt amazes her.

“It gets hot and really smelly, but we handle it,” she says with a laugh.

When Nicole finishes work at 2:30 p.m. she trains with her coach, T.C. Cox, for up to two hours a day, five days a week. The physical therapy she receives has helped tremendously and while it has not permanently corrected her issues, her posture has improved, and that helps her to run straighter.

The track she trains on was recently donated by the R&B artist Usher, a Chattanooga native. Nicole got to meet him at the dedication ceremony, calling it “the best day of my life ever. He said he’s going to watch me on TV.”

At night, tuckered out, she likes to watch TV or maybe see a movie. Other than Usher, she’s into country music.

“She’s a social media fanatic,” adds Debra, describing how active Nicole is on Facebook and Instagram. Working in recycling is not Nicole’s dream job, her mother says. “In spite of her great athleticism she is a girly-girl and loves ‘bling bling’ and knows how to accessorize. She’s interested in fashion and she might do something different. We believe she has the ability to be an ambassador for Special Olympics.”



Nicole Gonzalez
Dr. Sue Barlow of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and a few of her students, working with Nicole during a physical therapy training session

Cheering on Other Athletes

Part of Nicole’s preparation for Los Angeles is encouraging her teammates and competitors from around the world. “I help them with their needs and tell people, ‘Don’t give up,’” Nicole says, describing how she and her fellow athletes communicate through Facebook. “They say things like ‘I can't do it,’ and I just tell them to believe in themselves.”

“I don’t care if she wins,” Debra says. “She has not always come in first over the years, but like all the athletes, she gives it her best. The fact that she’s doing what she enjoys and is working hard at it is what’s important. I want her to be happy.”

Meanwhile, Debra is working to raise funds so the family can travel to Los Angeles and stay for the entire run of the World Games (July 25-August 2). “Special Olympics is awesome,” she enthuses. “One of the most powerful experiences you can have, even on a local level, is to see the joy on people’s faces.”



Nicole Gonzalez
Nicole running in the 100 Meter race at a local event, which she won.

A Dream Come True

When Debra got the call that Nicole had qualified for the Special Olympics USA national team, she admits to being shocked, but not because she was unaware of her daughter's high scores and abilities. It reminded her of watching the Olympics with her all those years ago.

“This is the top of the top,” she says. “Unbelievable — a dream come true.”