USC Unsung Heroes: The Ironman Nico Perez

Did you know USC is the home of a triathlete who went to the Half Ironman World Championship?

Photo of Nico Perez in USC Triathlon uniform.

“USC Unsung Heroes” is a column by Anthony Bottino that talks about elite USC athletes who aren’t on one of the school’s Division 1 teams.

Have you ever dreaded the idea of doing cardio exercises like running, biking or swimming? What about doing all of them one after the other? To make it even more challenging, what if it involved a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run? Sounds impossible, right? Well, for someone like Nico Perez, it is very achievable.

Nico, 23 years old, is a first-year master’s student studying mathematics. He also attended USC for his bachelor’s degree. USC has been excellent for Nico academically, but it’s also a part of what led him to become a triathlete.

Nico is an international student who spent the first 18 years of his life in São Paulo, Brazil. So when the time came to choose a college, USC was an unexpected decision.

“It wasn’t really in the plans until later on in high school. Until senior year, I was just planning on applying to Brazilian universities,” Nico said. “A couple of buddies of mine from my class were applying, and I got excited talking to them about it and managed to rush through the process. It was a bit of a last-minute decision.”

At first glance, someone might think Nico spent his life in Brazil running and biking around the country’s biggest city, but that’s not the case at all.

“I didn’t do anything in high school at all. Like, literally, I was sedentary,” Nico said. “In high school, I studied a lot. Senior year, I did gym and some pickup soccer games with my friends, but that’s it.”

Upon Nico’s arrival at USC, he didn’t immediately take up triathlon or cardiovascular sports. He went to the gym more, but he still hadn’t found that passion for triathlons — not until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

During COVID, he went back home to Brazil, where he finally started running. Since all the gyms were closed, he had to resort to running for exercise. At first, he started with a 5K; then, a few days later, a 7K; and the following week, a 10K. He displayed a clear talent right away, because doing that with limited running experience is not easy by any means. Nico recognized it too, because then, on a whim, he signed up for the Los Angeles Marathon.

“Looking back it was a stupid decision, but it got me here,” Nico said. “I started training really well with a running group back home. It got me in the rhythm of training.”

After spending a year in Brazil due to COVID, Nico brought his newfound love for running back to USC, where he then took up biking. He began cycling to complement his running training for the marathon and immediately became hooked on it. Now, all he needed was swimming.

Nico finally joined the USC Triathlon team during his junior year of college. That’s when everything changed for Nico. He became an extremely committed member of the team and found a new home in triathlon. With the help of his new training partners and SC Triathlon coach Corey Norris, he became a seasoned triathlete.

While it may seem like Nico was a natural, he definitely put in the work to earn his spot on the team. He committed to working out every day and pushing himself past his limits. He never shied away from tough workouts or trying something new, especially with biking and swimming, for which Nico put in a ton of extra effort.

It was time for a new challenge, though. After realizing he liked the Olympic distance races more than the sprint distances, he wanted to test himself in a 70.3 Ironman. This race made Nico a star. In Nico’s first 70.3, he qualified for the World Championship.

“It was a big surprise to me. I finished by myself and asked this random lady to check my place, and I was first,” Nico said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Nico and Olivia holding up trophies.

A year later, Nico arrived in Lahti, Finland, for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. He dedicated the school year and the summer to training. He constantly worked out, and by the end, he was in the best shape of his life. While he wasn’t expecting to win, he aimed to make the most of it and demonstrate why he deserved to be there.

All the hard work paid off, because on the grandest stage of them all, he raced a personal-best time of 4:39:36. To put that into perspective, the average time for a male is about 6 hours.

“At the finish line, I felt very fulfilled, because I delivered the best performance of my life, and in that place, it was amazing.”

Even after achieving the biggest accomplishment of his life, Nico took no rest or days off and immediately transitioned into full Ironman training. Training for this is much different, because the race now consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run which is twice the distance of 70.3. It’s undeniably one of the most grueling and challenging feats a person can undertake. However, Nico welcomes the challenge and eagerly looks forward to it. Just like everything else, Nico is relentlessly training for it.

“Monday is swim and bike; Tuesday is gym, run and swim; Wednesday is swim and bike as well; Thursday is gym, run and swim; Friday just swim; Saturday is a brick (Bike and Run); and Sunday is a long run,” Nico said. “Swim is like 10,000-12,000 yards per week, bike is like 150-200 miles and the run is about 30-40 miles.”

Going into the race, Nico is thinking he has a shot to qualify for Ironman Worlds, but he’s more focused on doing his best and finishing his first full Ironman.

With the Ironman a little over a month away on Oct. 22, Nico is fully engulfed in his training and had to move on quickly from the glory of competing in the World Championship. However, the SC Triathlon team hasn’t moved on. Nico is still a constant presence on the team, and they are beyond proud of Nico for his performance and making it to the World Championship. Everyone who knows Nico has full confidence that he will finish and have a spectacular time in the full Ironman. He serves as a leader and huge inspiration to everyone on the team.

From someone who used to rarely work out to becoming a world-class athlete, Nico has truly transformed his life into something extraordinary. He accomplished all of this while proudly representing his two homes: Brazil and USC.

“USC Unsung Heroes” runs every other Monday.