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Expressing Excellence—Through Sports

Athletes with autism beat low expectations—and sports records, too!
Young man smiling and running.
Kennet Lefkovic

Without saying a word, Kennet Lefkovic has been sending an important message about the power and abilities of people with intellectual disabilities—whether it’s on the bike track, marathon route or out on the open water. 

He’s been an impressive and hard-working athlete for years. But now, with an IRONMAN 70.3 and a full 140.6-mile IRONMAN under his belt, Kennet has soared as one of several Special Olympics athletes with autism who’ve been breaking barriers in endurance sports. 

And—though Special Olympics celebrates athletes with autism every day—this is World Autism Month. So let’s shine a light on these awesome achievers with autism!

Kennet’s latest victories came during a busy bunch of months, and after a lot of hard work and training. A full IRONMAN is a grueling race that demands a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. With guide Jeff Fejfar swimming, riding and running alongside him, Kennet finished the race in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 56 seconds.

In fact, Kennet has reportedly set a world record IRONMAN time for athletes with an intellectual disability without physical impairment. As Jeff says, ”Everyone has obstacles in life, but … if you set a goal, surround yourself with supportive people, plan out a course of action, and stay focused, there is a great chance of success!”

And Kennet’s not the only athlete with autism breaking barriers: fellow Special Olympics athletes Jonathan Sady and Daniel Peacock also successfully took on the IRONMAN Florida at Panama City Beach that day. Daniel completed the full course without a guide—and is believed to be the world’s second athlete with autism to do so. 

Young woman smiling.
Adrienne Bunn

Also recently, two other Special Olympics athletes competed in—and completed—a full IRONMAN at the 2023 World IRONMAN Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Adrienne Bunn and Marlynne Stutzman not only finished the race, they established some more records along the way.

Eighteen-year-old Adrienne finished first in her division and is now listed as the youngest person with autism to complete the race (she'd already kicked off a successful year by completing the IRONMAN 70.3 the day after her 18th birthday). Three weeks later, she ran the New York Marathon, finishing in 3:51:59. 

Marlynne, meanwhile, is known as the first person with autism to run both the Boston Marathon AND finish a full IRONMAN. And they are both listed as the first female Special Olympics athletes to complete an IRONMAN. 

“Autism isn’t a disability; it’s my superpower.”
Marlynne Stutzman

This new super power is becoming recognized throughout endurance sports. When Kennet, Jonathan and Marlynne completed the IRONMAN 70.3 in Maryland—1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1-mile half marathon—along with fellow Special Olympics athlete Chris Nikic, they became the largest contingent of athletes with intellectual disability to race an IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon to date. 

Young man coming out of the water after a swim
Jonathan Sady

Beth Atnip, who’s Sr Vice President of Global Operations for The IRONMAN Group, called it a “historic day for athletes competing with an intellectual disability.” She added, “All they needed was an opportunity to show what they are capable of doing, and it was nothing short of amazing.”

There was a time when people thought athletes with intellectual disabilities and/or autism didn’t have the stamina and focus to succeed in endurance sports. Then came the Special Olympics triathlon pilot program in the early 2010s, which led to the first Special Olympics World Games triathlon in Los Angeles. Then in 2018, Special Olympics Florida started its own triathlon pilot program. Chris, Kennet, Jonathan and Adrienne were more than ready to join up—and see what they could do.

In a world where people with intellectual disabilities are often under-estimated, Chris Nikic made headlines in 2020 when he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full IRONMAN. Since then, Chris has continued to be a pioneer in endurance sports events around the world, including the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai`i in 2022.


After Kennet was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and there were signs that speech might be an issue, his parents steered him toward sports. As his mother, Edita, recalls: “I hoped sports would open up a door to the world for him—and it did.”

Kennet started with swimming and then tennis, skiing, skating, bowling, etc. “By age 10, he’d mastered all the individual sports,” says Edita. 

Eventually, through the competition and camaraderie, Kennet began to pay more attention to others, though communication remains difficult. In school, he got all kinds of positive recognition—and built confidence to take on more competitive events. “They respected him a lot,” says his mother, who emphasized from an early age: “Whatever you start, you must finish.” 

“When he’s competing, he gives 100 percent,” says mom, Edita.

Young man racing on his bike.
Jonathan Sady

For Jonathan, who has ADHD in addition to autism, the hardest part of training was learning to slow down. His mother, Anne, says Jonathan was used to sprinting—which works for a short course, not a 140+-mile swimming/cycling/running marathon. “You need to pace yourself so you have the energy to last the distance. It's super hard going in to the event knowing you may well be out there for up to 17 hours.”

Did anyone cast doubts on whether these athletes could actually accomplish an IRONMAN 70.3, much less a full IRONMAN? “Almost everyone”—recalls Anne Sady, who admits to being a bit skeptical as well. The best part? Says Anne: “Training and socializing with others having the same dream and goals and sharing your successes and failures in a safe environment.

Adrienne says, “I’m sure there were people who questioned my ability to finish, but I was surrounded by people who encouraged me and believed in me.” She adds, “I worked hard to prove the doubters wrong.”

One of the hardest parts of training for Adrienne, who’s finishing up high school, was finding a balance between school and practice. “Training was a full time job.” 

Young man cheering with his arms up as he finishes a race.
Daniel Peacock

Daniel also had to adjust to find enough training time. He has a full-time job with the local School Board, plus studying for his GED and volunteering at a local museum. But he had important support from triathlon teammates, mentors and enthusiastic coaches. “I am very lucky to have so much love and support,” he says.

As for Marlynne, she just loves training and staying in top condition, so she’s already looking ahead to her next marathons and especially more open-water swims. As she puts it, “Everyone calls me ‘The Fish’,”—adding, “Special Olympics gave me confidence about all I can do, so I want to keep showing people with disabilities they can do this too. Try your best and live out your dreams.”


Young woman running.
Marlynne Stutzman

Marlynne’s enthusiasm and ambitions are soaring—and she shows no sign of stopping: since 2022, she’s medaled at Special Olympics USA Games, finished the Boston Marathon and Atlanta Marathon; represented Special Olympics Florida at an international triathlon in Slovakia—in addition to, of course, the IRONMAN 70.3 and full IRONMAN. Her future goals include swimming from San Francisco to Alcatraz and running in the New York Marathon; slightly closer to home, she might even try a swim around Key West. 

Adrienne is planning to compete in more 70.3 IRONMAN races (in Tennessee and Kentucky), so she can practice racing without a guide. Her goal is to become an independent athlete. She is waiting to hear back about running the NYC marathon again, plus the Berlin Marathon in early fall. Adrienne’s biggest goal (so far) is to qualify for the 2028 USA Olympic triathlon team.

Jonathan is doing more half IRONMAN events, plus planning another full IRONMAN at Panama City Beach.  He continues to do half marathons and is now exploring cycling races. And he’s keeping up with Special Olympics swimming, cycling, golf, stand-up paddleboard (and has even become a certified coach) and, of course, triathlon.

Daniel, who’s been doing triathlons for 17 years, is also eager to keep up the pace. He wants to continue racing in IRONMAN 70.3 events, with the occasional full IRONMAN. He's also ready to help Special Olympics expand triathlon in Florida—and inspire more athletes to push their limits. Other goals include racing in an off-road Xterra triathlon—with mountain bikes!

Man and young woman standing side by side showing off medals.
Adrienne Bunn with her coach and guide, Doug Guthrie

And Kennet continues to train when he can, even as he waits to hear back on yet another full IRONMAN—the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii. Meanwhile, he's in training mode for the Challenge Roth race in Germany this July.

Each of these achievers has learned—alot—through their training. Do they have any pointers they’d advice they’d like to share for others with autism. 

Says Anne Sady, “Our advice to everyone is, whatever pursuit you endeavor to do, surround yourself with like minded people who want to help you succeed. Also, have fun combining your passion with your dreams.  Find your tribe like Jon did and follow your heart.”

Adrienne says, “Never let your diagnoses slow you down! Surround yourself with people who support your goals, and make sure you are doing something that you love doing.” 

Daniel sums it all up succinctly: “You can do it! Believe in yourself!”

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