In November 2020, 21-year-old Chris Nikic became the first athlete with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. Now, he’s setting his sights on the world championship.
In Florida, there are fire ants. Even in the best of Florida circumstances—relaxing with friends and family in the sun with glorious subtropical breezes—fire ants are the worst.
Now imagine you’re biking in the middle of an Ironman triathlon competition in the heat and humidity, after a grueling 2.4-mile open ocean swim; you’ve been pushing your legs for 21 straight miles with 91 more miles ahead of you, and it already feels like battery acid burns through your tendons. You stop at mile 22 for a hydration break—right on top of a mound of fire ants, which you don’t notice until it’s too late.
As if everything wasn’t punishing enough, now you have to keep pushing your body through 90 bike miles then a full marathon with a swelling nest of stinging, itching bites infesting your legs and ankles. Then, at mile 50, you suddenly skid out, tumbling headlong in a nasty crash: body meets road hard and fast. Bloody, scraped and mentally shaken, you’re losing time. You’re afraid to keep going.
Now imagine this scene–but add to it the inherent coordination and muscle tone challenges that accompany Down syndrome.
Yet, 21-year-old Chris Nikic did it. Right down to the attack by fire ants, every odd was stacked against him and every obstacle thrown in his way. The bike crash almost broke his spirit in the grueling Ironman endurance test, the mental fear of crashing again slowing his speed for 30 miles. Chris was in serious danger of not qualifying. But, the determination to reach his goal overtook his fear of pain. He kicked it into high gear for the last 32 miles, pushing himself to go faster than he’d ever ridden to compensate for lost time.
Not only did Chris finish under the 17-hour time limit, he also made world history: he is the first person with Down syndrome to earn the Ironman honor.
He arrived at the Ironman finish line 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds after he started.
One Step at a Time.
Just a few years ago, Chris was about as far from an Ironman as possible. Married to his couch and video game set with one open heart surgery already under his belt (performed when he was only five months old) and a history of coordination challenges (he used a walker until age 4 and practiced six months to learn to ride a bicycle), Chris also lagged under the emotional strain from years of exclusion in school and his community because of having Down syndrome.
At that time, he was also recovering from four consecutive major ear surgeries and approaching the “disability cliff,” the dreaded moment when young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities stop receiving services yet have almost no options for building a fulfilling adult life with good-paying jobs and romantic relationships.
“I was sedentary,” he says. “My sister Jacky dragged me of the couch and wanted me to be active.”
His sister’s intervention proved to be the defining moment for Chris. He decided he wasn’t going to fall off the disability cliff like so many of his peers. He was going to leap off at top speed and jump into the life of his dreams.
“Chris was an average kid with Down syndrome,” says his dad and fitness partner Nik. “He was overweight, sitting on the couch, staring at a future life of isolation and being sedentary. It was a future not trending in the right direction. He decided to get off the couch and start doing something. It’s been a two-and-a-half-year journey from couch to Ironman.”
“I set a personal goal to be the best I can be by getting 1% better every day,” Chris says.
“I could use my obstacles as an excuse, but I don’t do excuses.”
At first, the struggle was real. He could barely make it one lap around a track. His first training goal was one push-up—just one. He signed up for a Special Olympics bike race and came in last place. But the goals were also real. So, he would suit up and show up every single day.
“I could use my obstacles as an excuse,” he says, “but I don’t do excuses, and my coaches won’t take them. I had a choice: excuses or success.”
Chris chose success.
1% to 100%
Following his 1% plan, the struggle around the track became a jog around, then a run, then a sprint. That March, he completed his first race logging a 148-minute time. By April, he finished the same race in 100 minutes.
Chris has advice for everyone who thinks they know the limits of people with special needs: “Stop telling me what I can do. I have to fight for my dreams. I’m a public speaker. I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records. Don’t put a lid on me.”
Chris’s Ironman achievement made headlines in The New York Times. News outlets around the world picked up his incredible story as the first person with Down syndrome to reach such an elite athletic accomplishment. More than that, Chris’s Ironman status smashes the public perception that people with disabilities can’t, or won’t, or shouldn’t push themselves to prove the depths of their emotional and physical strengths.
“Doing Ironman gave him a goal to really stretch himself,” says his dad. “It opened a world of possibility for him and for others like him. He made it happen. Nobody gave this to him.”
“There’s a wonderful world out there that’s welcoming and ready to invite our kids in and to include them, but [our kids] have to make an effort,” Nik says. “As parents of children with special needs, we should be willing to push our kids to be the best they can be. They all have dormant strengths and talents.”
Once Chris nabbed his Ironman victory, more deeply personal goals filled the Ironman spot.
“Buy a house,” Chris says of his future plans. “I want a beautiful wife. I want a car.” Chris’s dreams for his life are really no different than any other 21-year-old’s. When asked by his dad where they were going after Ironman, Chris quipped, “a nightclub.”
“I can be an inspiration to kids,” Chris says. And he also recognizes he’s prime husband material: “Inside me, I know I’m adorable and amazing.”
An Iron Will
At the heart of it all, Chris’s dream is very simple: to be included. Through his history-making efforts, Chris championed a world where people with Down syndrome can be understood and seen as natural parts of the human family with so much to give to our culture and community.
“If we could describe him in one word,” says his dad, “it would be joy.”
When Chris crossed the finish line, the Ironman Foundation tweeted this post: “We are beyond inspired, and your accomplishment is a defining moment in Ironman history.”
Well said, you guys. We Include echoes your praise of Chris Nikic and all he has done for people with disabilities.
So what’s next for Chris? Certainly not some well-deserved rest. Instead, he’s training for the IRONMAN World Championship on October 9, 2021 in Kona, Hawaii. You can follow Chris’s journey on his website and Instagram.