COLUMBIA — What do you call a powerlifter who, at one point, did not have enough strength to grip a bar?
Answer: Defending national champion. But this particular athlete prefers the alias "Big Nick."
Nick Watterson is a 29-year-old powerlifter from Washington, Mo. At 4 feet 11 inches, Big Nick has never been large in stature and has not always been so strong.
Born with Down syndrome, Watterson began his life with low muscle tone. He was unable to hold his head up for more than a year, and he could not keep his tongue in his mouth until he was 3.
Low muscle tone could have proved a major hurdle, but Watterson and his family didn't let it get in their way. His parents, David and Cindy Watterson, are both MU graduates, and Big Nick was born just a few months after Cindy Watterson graduated with a degree in computer science.
Cindy Watterson was just starting her career when Nick was born, and she immediately decided to stay home and raise him. She began working for hours each day on improving his strength.
“He would grab a hold of a bar, and I would cover his hands,” she said. “I would lift (his hands) with the bar until he got the muscle strength to hold it himself.”
When Big Nick began powerlifting in 2001, he was unable to lift anything heavier than 40 pounds. But by 2009 he had become a three-time Missouri Special Olympics gold medalist. Also, thanks to his dad’s coaching, he won three more gold medals at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games.
“When I see him compete now, I cry,” said Cindy Watterson.
Big Nick says his success comes from a higher source. “I get my power from the Holy Spirit,” he said, reflecting his family’s Christian beliefs.
David Watterson has been coaching Nick for more than 10 years, and it is he who created the Big Nick handle.
“Physically, he’s not very big,” said Nick's younger brother Michael, 17. “But when you meet him, he’s big.”
For Michael, his brother’s influence has also been big. He said he watches his dad and Big Nick work out almost every day, which inspires him to play football at Washington High School.
Big Nick competed this weekend in the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games at his parents’ alma mater. And once again, he took home three gold medals.