Chris Nikic made history when he became the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a full-distance Ironman Triathlon, and it all started with one push up.
The 21-year-old recent high-school graduate, from Maitland, Florida, was determined to prove ‘anything is possible’ when he crossed the finish line after the gruelling 4km swim, 180km bike ride, and 42km run in the Panama City Beach Ironman last month.
“Nobody thought I could do an Ironman,” Chris, who completed the triathlon in a time of 16:46:09, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
After undergoing four surgeries and becoming increasingly sedentary at the age of 18, it was Chris’ dad Nik who encouraged his son to take the first step in his journey to becoming an athlete.
It all came down to a principle Nik initially created for his workplace - to be 1 per cent better every day.
“Last year, I was the last-place finisher for a short sprint at the special Olympics,” Chris tells us.
“I was the only one with Down Syndrome. The rest of them were all so much faster than me. I was so slow that I could not run 3.1 miles [5km]. I had to walk it.”
But he says he was willing to keep pushing to become that tiny bit better every day.
“When they rested, I kept going. When the pandemic came and everyone stayed home, I went out and exercised. When everything was shut down, I found ways to train. No excuses,” he remembers.
“I started with one push up, sit up and squat. One lap in the pool, one lap run and one lap bike. Then one more, and one more, until a year later I was training 3-8 hours per day.”
In the 42-year history of Ironman, hundreds of thousands of athletes put themselves to the test at triathlons around the world each year.
While abilities of all kinds have been welcomed and celebrated at races throughout the years, Chris is the first person with Down syndrome to even sign up for the event, and after he competed it he was also certified as a record holder in the Guinness World Records.
Chris’s achievement was met with an outpouring of support from the wider sports world as well. Within days, he was fielding messages from tennis great Billie Jean King and American Ninja Warrior host Akbar Gbajabiamila, who called the Ironman “one of the most difficult things that anyone can take on.”
Chris says he was excited to hear the words “Chris Nikic you are an Ironman” for the first time after he finished, but was definitely feeling tired after his mammoth effort.
“I told my dad we should go home, shower and go to a nightclub,” he admits he thought initially. Though once he sat down he decided he “didn't feel like dancing anymore.”
“My sister needed to help me walk,” he says.
Dad Nik, who was at the finish line ready to embrace his son, says he hopes Chris can be an example for others to follow.
“To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory,” Nik says.
“Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership. It’s about being an example to other kids and families that face similar barriers, proving no dream or goal is too high.”
And Chris’ guide and coach Dan Grieb, or uncle Dan, who was by his side the entire course, says he is no longer surprised by what Chris can accomplish.
“Because I recognise who Chris is; a human being that has goals and dreams just like everyone else,” Dan says.
“He wants to make the path easier for those just like him and can follow his lead.”
Chris, who is also a Special Olympics Florida Athlete, wants others with a goal to try his trick of being 1 per cent better.
“I would tell [people] you can do the same if you are willing to get 1 per cent better every day,” he says.
“It's really not that hard. If you can run 100 yards, you can run 101 the next day and 26 miles a year later. No excuses.”
In terms of what’s next, Chris is now looking to qualify for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games taking place in Orlando.
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