On Nov. 7, 21-year-old Special Olympics athlete Chris Nikic made history by becoming the first person with Down syndrome to attempt and finish the Ironman Triathlon.
The Ironman Triathlon includes a 2.4-mile, open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run. Despite suffering a bike crash and an ant attack, Chris Nikic crossed the finish line in Panama City Beach, Fla. He completed the race in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds, just 14 minutes under the cutoff time of 17 hours. Guinness World Records has officially recognized his completion of the race.
Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Chris Nikic was born with physical disabilities and stunted psychological development. He didn’t learn to walk until he was four and it took him years to learn to tie his shoes. Nikic often felt like a societal outcast. “I always felt isolated, left out, excluded,” he told Kurt Streeter of the New York Times.
With help and care from his parents, Nikic gradually learned to run, swim, play basketball and ride a bicycle; all significantly challenging tasks for individuals with Down syndrome. As he developed a fondness for sports, Nikic eventually set his eyes on the Ironman Triathlon. For him, crossing the finish line signifies much more than just completing the race. “It means I can achieve my dreams and take care of myself,” he told Runner’s World. “It also means I can inspire others like me to go after their dreams.”
Since last October, Nikic has been training for the triathlon with Dan Grieb, a volunteer coach who has finished 16 Ironman races. They spent four to eight hours training every day and went on bike rides or long runs on the weekends. Grieb served as Nikic’s guide for the entirety of the race; ensuring Nikic’s health and keeping him on pace to complete the triathlon.
Nikic said that his parents showed unconditional support during the long training process. After the race, he gave his Ironman medal to his mom to express his gratitude for her support.
“To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory,” Nik Nikic, Nikic’s father, said in a press conference. Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion and leadership.” For Nikic, the finish represented that, despite his disability, he can accomplish anything he sets his mind too.
Nikic also hopes that his story can inspire other children with Down syndrome. “Parents are reaching out saying I am a hero to their kids,” Nikic continued in the press conference.
Nikic and his father have launched the “1% Better Challenge,” which encourages people to make small, incremental improvements each day for 30 days, to raise awareness of Down syndrome. “Our hope is that Chris will launch thousands of parents to look at their children differently,” explained Nik in a press conference.
The Ironman Triathlon is only a starting point for Nikic. Now, he is looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics in Orlando, Fla.