Chris Nikic Becomes First Person With Down Syndrome to Complete Ironman Triathlon

When Chris Nikic was only five months old, he underwent open-heart surgery. The operation left him so weak and unbalanced that he wasn’t able to walk on his own until he was four-years-old. When learning to run, it took him months to learn to swing his arms, rather than hold them above his head. It took years still to learn how to tie his shoes. But now, Nikic holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person with Down syndrome to not only attempt, but finish, an Ironman triathlon.

Growing up, Nikic’s parents struggled to find the right care for their son. In search of the perfect fit, they moved through seven different elementary schools. “I always felt isolated, left out, excluded,” said Nikic when describing how it felt growing up.

Eventually, Nikic found comfort in sports. By his early teens, he was running, swimming, and playing basketball in the Special Olympics. At the age of 15, Nikic was taught to ride a bike and, though he struggled to keep his balance, he remained committed and practiced for months.

A few years later, Nikic endured a series of ear surgeries, which left him weak and homebound. Fearing his son’s mental health would deteriorate while regaining his strength, father Nik Nikic developed the “1 percent better challenge.” What started out as a way to get his son out of bed and active everyday became an organization that strives to promote awareness of Down syndrome, as well as encourages Chris and others to push for 1% of improvement every day.

In October of last year, 21-year-old Chris Nikic set his sights on the Ironman Triathlon in Panama City Beach, Florida. With help of volunteer coach Dan Grieb, Nikic began his months of training. In order to finish the event to the standards of the Guinness World Records, Nikic would have to swim 2.4 miles, ride his bike for 112 miles, and run for 26.2 miles, all under 17 hours.

With Coach Grieb as his guide and by his side for each race, Nikic started off the swimming portion of the event strong. However, when it came to bike riding, Nikic’s perseverance and confidence were shaken. After sustaining several painful, swollen red ant bites on his ankles during a hydration break, Nikic got back on his bike, only to crash a few miles later while speeding down hill. Despite scraping his knee badly, he mounted his bike once more and carried on.

Tethered to Coach Grieb, Nikic began the marathon segment in the darkness of night. At Mile 10, exhaustion hit and it seemed the Nikic might not finish in time. That’s when father Nik Nikic brought his son close and whispered, “Are you going to let your pain win, or let your dreams win?” Nikic picked up his pace and crossed the finish line, with arms held high, at 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds. With only a few minutes to spare, Nikic successfully finished the event and secured the record.

Chris Nikic Finish Line

Crossing the work week finish line got us like..#AnythingisPossible #OnePercentBetter #FinishLineFriday

Posted by IRONMAN on Friday, November 13, 2020

“To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory,” said father Nik. “Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion and leadership.”

Check out Chris’ Instagram to learn more about his “1 percent better challenge,” see photos from his Ironman race, and follow along as he trains for his next journey, the 2022 Special Olympics!

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