A half century into a life seemingly defined by sight challenges, Goran Nikolić’s vision has become his greatest strength.
The local runner and Chicago Fire fan is in the midst of running a mind-bending 77 marathons in 77 days to raise awareness for the capabilities of sight-challenged individuals, and to raise funds for the completion of a Paralympic training center in his native Serbia.
Along the way, he’s found a supporter in Fire head coach and fellow Serbian Veljko Paunović.
“It’s an amazing quest and mission that he has,” Paunović said. “It’s inspiring and I immediately wanted to propel a will in all of us to help.”
Born in Smederevska Palanka - a town in Eastern Serbia - a birth defect allows Nikolić only five percent of his eyesight, an amount that designates him legally blind. The 51-year-old’s commitment to advancing the Paralympic community in Serbia through distance running stems from a lack of an outlet for his love of soccer as a youth.
“My goal is to help future generations have the abilities to play Paralympic soccer,” Nikolić said via a translator. “Until eighth grade I was in a regular school, so to speak, and I liked to play soccer. My sight that was left allowed me to play with regular kids on the school playground, but when my peers started to go into travel soccer and join travel clubs, I couldn’t get a doctor’s certificate to play on that level.”
A self-proclaimed Red Star Belgrade fan, Nikolić didn’t succumb to his early setback. A desire to remain active in sports set him down a new path as he found his way in life.
“My running has a big connection with soccer,” he said. “My first motivation as a kid was to run after a soccer ball. Soccer as a sport brings a great interest to the blind people, even if they never saw the game.”
Nikolić began running around a local soccer field, slowly adding laps to his count each day. By 2009, he had assembled a team to help guide his daily running, and successfully completed his first official marathon in Belgrade. In those 26.2 miles, Nikolić discovered his purpose.
By 2016, he set out to run 55 marathons in 55 days to fundraise for the creation of Paralympic facilities and create the opportunities he wished he’d had as a child. The funds raised from the effort – alongside donations of land and local corporate support - helped begin construction on a Paralympic stadium in Krgujevac, Serbia. Nikolić then set out for Chicago to continue his quest, this time upping the ante to 77 marathons in 77 days to complete the project.
“In Chicago and the area, there are approximately 400,000 people from Serbia,” he said. “I’m doing this (here) because I believe that it will make my challenge more visible to companies and people of goodwill who are willing to support the idea.”
Now 50 marathons into his current challenge, Nikolić hopes to raise enough money to fulfill the remaining infrastructural needs for a Paralympic facility’s soccer complex. By the time he completes his current 77 marathon challenge, he’ll have upped his lifetime total to 156 marathons run for humanitarian causes.
While running has been his main focus in Chicago, the new connection to his first sporting passion has been an added bonus. Paunović caught wind of Nikolić's story through a mutual friend in the city, and has been a fervent supporter ever since.
“There’s probably no soccer player in the world that can do that (laughs),” Paunović said of Nikolić’s feat. “It’s an amazing athletic achievement. It’s an amazing show of strong mentality. It’s an amazing quest to try to awaken awareness.”
Nikolić has been a welcome guest at SeatGeek Stadium, where he’s had the opportunity to mingle with fellow Serbian ex-pats plying their trade in the Windy City.
“In Serbia, there is great familiarity and great affection for Chicago Fire,” he said. “The (Nemanja) Nikolić jersey I got, I saved it for my 23rd marathon. I thought I had to run 22 marathons first to deserve to wear that great jersey.”
(Image submitted by Goran Nikolić)
For Nikolić, having Paunović on board with the Paralympic cause in their home country speaks volumes.
“(Paunović) brought a great happiness to the Serbian nation with that World Cup win,” Nikolić said, referencing Paunović’s 2015 Under-20 World Cup victory with the Serbian National Team. “Besides the fact that he’s a great coach, in Serbia he’s well-respected and considered a great person first of all.”
“I think overall public awareness is better about these things, but I still don’t think that we all are doing enough,” Paunović added. “(People of every ability) all deserve good quality of life and to be integrated in society just like everyone else.”
“Hopefully I’ll be able to motivate people to realize it’s never too late to start.”