Fireworks illuminate the nighttime vault; beneath the spectacle, Brandenburg Gate; beneath the gate, a thousand-strong multitude; within the multitude, one David Nicholson; and, upon his neck, three gold medals and a single silver.
Nicholson, a 26-year-old powerlifter from Calgary, leaps with each explosion, joining the swell of a new generation under a storied arch – formerly, witness to Napoleon and Hitler – now, presiding over markedly dissimilar festivities: honouring competition, achievement and belonging, here, at the Special
Olympic World Games Berlin 2023 Closing Ceremony. A resilient city broken and rebuilt, broken, and rebuilt again is a lavish backdrop as Nicholson, who has cerebral palsy, celebrates similar metamorphosis, the breaking down and building up of muscle fibres and brain pathways through years of dedication until here, his quality emerges on a world stage.
But despite impressive feats of strength and a mounting list of external accolades, it’s Nicholson’s positivity and inner character that continues to garner attention.
Nicholson has been involved in sport for much of his life, playing soccer, golf, floor hockey, basketball, and baseball among others before discovering powerlifting in 2014.
“I was quite nervous about it. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to hurt himself,’” says his mother, Barb Nicholson.
Under the guidance of powerlifting coach and personal trainer Curtis Howden, however, Nicholson quickly put those fears to rest. He began to train and compete, learning to work within the unique challenges presented by his limitations while cultivating uncommon strength.
“We have to autoregulate a bit, meaning we see where he’s at on the day and what his system’s allowing us to do,” says Howden.
It appears to be working well. Nearly a decade later, and several months since his success at the Special Olympic World Games, Nicholson boasts personal bests of 440 lb. (squat), 242 lb. (bench press), and 462 lb. (deadlift).
“If you were to compare David versus the average population, pound for pound, he would be stronger than at least 90 per cent of people, trained or untrained,” says Howden.
It’s numbers like these that propelled Nicholson’s success as he developed in the sport. Beginning with wins in Special Olympic categories at RAW Powerlifting Federation Canada competitions, including the World Championships in 2019, he went on to place second at Alberta Powerlifting Union Provincial Championships in 2022 in an open category alongside all comers, special needs or not.
“He was like, ‘I don’t really want to have my own category—I’d like to just compete. There’s nothing wrong with my body. And I was like, ‘Man, that is higher truth. Let’s do it.’”Curtis Howden, Nicholson’s personal trainer
Even with such victories on his resumé, it’s still for his participation at the Special Olympic World Games that Nicholson reserves the words, “My dream came true.”
Reflecting the seriousness with which he approached the event, Nicholson increased training volume and added supplementary mobility and joint work to his preparations. He earned a worthy return on investment this June, earning three gold medals – in squat, deadlift, and overall (the total of all three lifts combined) – and a silver medal in bench press. Enter the fireworks, enter Brandenburg Gate, enter the crowds, enter the medals bouncing around his neck.
Despite the fanfare, it isn’t ultimately overcoming specific special needs through the years, or their renunciation in the name of competitive ‘higher truth’ along the way, or finally the culmination of hard work in Special Olympic World Games gold that has friends and strangers lauding Nicholson.
It’s his disposition.
Nicholson carries himself with a positive bearing consistent across settings, whether the gym, university, one of the many places he has volunteered, or, finally, across the world in another country.
“You find out a lot about a person when you lift with them. You find out exactly how willing they are to be uncomfortable, what their sort of resilience is when something’s hard. And that was the stuff I noticed in David right away,” says Howden.
His coach notes the positive energy Nicholson brings to the gym and its members—his ability to brighten the day of those he encounters.
Photography by Trudie Lee
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