Chris Nikic Wants to Be the First Ironman Finisher With Down Syndrome

By Jenny McCoy, Runner's World

Chris Nikic knows what he wants in life. “My dream is to buy my own house, buy my own car, [and] get a smoking hot blonde wife from Minnesota,” the 21-year-old tells Runner’s World. But Chris, who has Down syndrome, realizes this reality won’t be handed to him. “My dad says if you sit on the couch and play video games, you’ll never get your dreams,” he says. So instead, the Maitland, Florida, resident is doing the exact opposite by training for an Ironman-distance triathlon, which is widely considered one of the most brutal athletic events on the planet.

An Ironman consists of a 2.2-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, with no breaks in between—it’s a take-no-prisoners test of mental and physical stamina. Completing the event, which demands up to a full day’s worth of continuous effort, is the type of brag-worthy accomplishment one might slap on a bumper sticker, highlight on a resume, or tattoo on a bicep. But for Chris, crossing the finish line would signify much more. “It means I can achieve my dreams and take care of myself,” he says. “It also means I can inspire others like me to go after their dreams.”

Though Chris will swim and run while tethered to his Special Olympics partner and receive help transitioning between sports, he will be tasked with following the rest of the Ironman rules. “We don't make any accommodations for anyone around the core elements of racing,” explains Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman Group. All athletes must complete the same distances and meet the same cutoff times. That means if Chris crosses the finish line in less than 17 hours, “it'll be the same accomplishment as everybody else,” Messick says. “And that’s awesome.” It’s also damn impressive.

In the 42-year history of Ironman, hundreds of thousands of athletes have tested their mettle in races around the world. But Chris is the first person with Down syndrome to sign up for the event, according to Messick—“and we hope he’s not the last.”

On November 7, when Chris wades into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at the Ironman Florida race in Panama City Beach, he won’t just be racing for himself. He’ll be racing for the millions of others living with disabilities who have been told, often and from a young age, what they can and can’t do.  “Just by competing at Ironman, Chris demonstrates an element of athletic dedication and achievement that is often overlooked in Special Olympics sport, and he serves as an inspiration to everyone in the movement,” says Lou Lauria, chief of sport and competition at Special Olympics.

Chris’s dad, Nik Nikic, can rattle off a list of obstacles his son has faced in life: Open heart surgery at five months old. Not being able to walk until age 4 or eat solid foods until age 5. Four major ear operations at age 17. And struggling still, as a young adult, with balance, slow reaction time, and low muscle tone. The list goes on, but in Chris’s mind, nothing is insurmountable. And when people tell Chris he can’t do something, he simply says: Watch me and I’m going to prove you wrong. 

It wasn’t always this way. “Honestly, I was influenced by a lot of negative perceptions and negative advice throughout his first 18 years of Chris’s life, by all the professionals,” admits Nik, who raised Chris with his wife and Chris’s mom, Patty (a blonde woman from Minnesota). “I think of all the other parents like me when their child is first born with Down syndrome and they're barraged with all kinds of negative information ... about what their kids are not going to be able to do. Nobody talks to them about what they could do if they set their mind to it.”

Nik and Patty’s mindset shifted when Chris got involved with Special Olympics Florida's triathlon and built up enough skill and endurance to do a 1,000-meter open-water lake swim last October.

“It was something we’d never imagined was even possible,” Nik remembers. After emerging from the lake, Chris—in accordance with local tradition—earned the right to sign his name on the wall of a nearby house. In black marker, he scrawled: “Chris World Champ,” and the words planted a seed in Nik’s mind.

“I started thinking, well, what could he be a world champion at?” Nik says. After learning that no one with Down syndrome had ever done an Ironman before, Nik asked: Why not Chris? Thus began Chris’s history-making journey.  After training diligently all winter and spring, Chris became the first person with Down syndrome to finish a half Ironman in May, charting his own course when the official race he’d registered for was cancelled over COVID-19 concerns.

In the time since, he’s continued working hard, exercising an average of 30-plus hours a week while also juggling school, homework, and an increasing number of media requests. Some days, Chris rises at 5 a.m. to squeeze in a workout before class; then, he’ll exercise again in the evening after wrapping up school work. Chris logs all that training on Instagram and a giant whiteboard at home.

Running is the hardest of the three triathlon sports, Chris says, but also his favorite because it’s the last segment of the Ironman race. The activity also “helps me get a cute butt, and the ladies like that,” he adds.

Jokes aside, Chris’s triumphs so far, his coach and Special Olympics partner Dan Grieb says, are thanks in part to his adherence to a simple yet powerful philosophy: Just get 1 percent better everyday.   “It’s easy to be successful because I only need to get one percent better each day,” Chris explains. What started as one push-up a year ago is now 160; what began as one lap swim, morphed, over time, into 4,200 continuous yards. With diligence, consistency, and doses of positive reinforcement, Chris just keeps improving. Every Saturday night, if he sets a new PR on the bike, he and Nik celebrate with P.F. Chang’s (extra rice), chocolate cake, and a Corona beer.

This slow-and-steady approach has helped Chris develop an ironclad work ethic. Along the way, his cognitive abilities have improved, too. “After about a year, a year and a half, he would start learning new skills and drills in half the time, then in a third of the time, then in a fraction of the time,” Nik explains. “We started to see cognitively where he was connecting things better and faster.”

Chris’s 1-percent philosophy has proved so effective that he now gives motivational speeches on the topic. To date, he’s shared his story publicly nearly 20 times, including once in front of a 1,000-person crowd.

Another secret to Chris’s success? A willingness to fail. People are so concerned about those with special needs, that they want to keep them safe, explains Grieb—but doing so actually compartmentalizes them and minimizes their opportunities. “One of the greatest ways you and I have learned anything is through failure,” Grieb says. “And if we’re afraid to allow Chris to fail, then we're stealing [from] him some amazing lessons.”

Recently, Chris endured a trio of bike crashes, including a gnarly fall that demanded about a dozen stitches on his chin. The incident, which occurred just a month before the half Ironman, also cost the athlete some skin on his elbows, knees, and hands—plus 10 precious days of training. When Chris’s body finally healed enough to hop back in the saddle, a mental block remained. 

But that wasn’t an excuse to throw in the towel. Instead, “we put him on a bike in a parking lot,” Nik recalls. “He was barely going three, four miles an hour—I had to hold him.” Chris persisted though, and after 10 to 15 minutes, he progressed to a trail, where he proceeded to pedal extremely slowly, covering five miles in about an hour and a half. Then, he picked up his cadence, completing the next five miles in about half the time. Though the performance was nowhere near his best (Chris can typically tackle five miles in 20 minutes), it underscored the importance of persevering and growing through failure.

Now, Chris is riding up to 100 miles at time and also pedals with BMX pads on his elbows and knees “so if he falls, he’s gonna bounce right back up,” Nik says. “We’re learning a lot every step of the way.” 

Training for an Ironman has also given Chris much-valued socialization. He joined Grieb’s triathlon club, befriended other athletes, and now, every Saturday, about a dozen people show up to complete his long bike ride with him. The young athlete “just thrives on the social connection, the hugs, the attention,” Nik says. “It’s a community that has embraced him. A lot of the others like him don’t have that social interaction. He doesn't have that concern anymore—he's part of the team and part of the community.”

In turn, Chris, who is known to hug anyone and everyone, spreads the good vibes forward. He transformed “our whole Central Florida triathlon group into a hugging culture that now is all united around Chris completing this Ironman,” says Grieb, recalling that more than 100 hundred people came out in May to cheer him on as he tackled the half Ironman.

In the time since, Chris’s influence has continued to swell—he recently filmed a video for the National Down Syndrome Society, graced the cover of multiple magazines, was interviewed by ESPN, and was appointed a Special Olympics ambassador. The list of impressive achievements goes on, but the best thing, says Nik, is that “Chris doesn’t really care.” 

Ultimately, Chris’s Ironman attempt isn’t for the attention or the accolades. Instead, it’s about inspiring the millions of others like him around the world to reach their full potential, says Nik—and, in the process, giving his family peace of mind. “I always worry about what [Chris] is going to do when we’re not around,” Nik admits. “If he can accomplish an Ironman, if he can set himself on a world stage like that, he can do anything he wants to do and he’s going to be okay no matter what.” Nik hopes to spread this message to other parents who have children with disabilities—“that ‘look, your kids are going to be okay, but you need to invest in them while they’re young and help them to be the best that they can be.’”

As of now, Ironman Florida at Panama City Beach is still scheduled for the first Saturday in November. But because of the pandemic, there’s a chance it could be postponed or cancelled. For Chris, of course, that won’t be an excuse. “We're gonna make our own course again and just do it,” Grieb says.

And if/when Chris crosses the finish line, whether it’s at an official race or a DIY course, how will he celebrate the history-making feat?   “After Ironman, we go to nightclub,” Chris says. “I’m going to invite a bunch of smoking hot blonds.”

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