Human Interest

Chris Nikic becomes first man with Down syndrome to complete Ironman World Championship

Chris Nikic

Chris Nikic has once again made history, as the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

Almost two years ago, Nikic stunned the world by becoming the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. The event is said to be one of the most challenging in the world, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run, which must be completed within a 17-hour time frame.

Doctors originally predicted that Nikic would never be able to do anything like an Ironman, but he worked hard to prove them all wrong, even rebounding from a series of surgeries as a teenager that left him unable to ride a bike or swim even one lap in the pool. “I don’t use my condition as an excuse,” Nikic said. “Instead, I work harder… My dad told me, ‘Don’t ever doubt your dreams, Chris.’ He told me God gave me gifts. I don’t ever doubt my dreams now.”

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After completing the Ironman triathlon, Nikic went on to break more barriers. He became the first person with Down syndrome to run both the Boston and New York City marathons, as well as the first athlete with Down syndrome to get an official sponsorship. He also won ESPN’s Jimmy V Award for Perseverance in 2021.

But he still had more to accomplish: another Ironman triathlon, this time in Kona, Hawaii, where the world championship is held, on an even more challenging course than the one in Florida. He continued training with Dan Grieb, his trainer and guide.

“The second Nikic gets in the water for the start of the race on October 6, people all over the world with intellectual disabilities have won, and become part of the larger endurance community,” Grieb told Cycling Weekly before the race. “My goal for Nikic is to see him tackle this race the way I know he can and test his limitations and see how far he can go on race day.”

For someone with Down syndrome, one of the difficulties of a race like Ironman is having a good grasp on the time and distance it will take to finish. Grieb helps with that during the race, but one of Nikic’s mottos — 1% better — also keeps Nikic focused on attainable goals. Every day, Nikic works to do just 1% better than he did the day before.

“People with Down Syndrome learn slower and rely heavily on routines,” his father, Nik Nikic, said. “With the 1% methodology, Nikic is able to focus on attainable goals that over time build up to him being ready to race at the Super Bowl of triathlon – the World Championship.”

Though Nikic completed an Ironman before, the championship course in Kona came with greater difficulties, some of which he admitted reduced him to tears while he trained in Hawaii. The bike portion includes riding the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway up a mountain to Hawi, which comes with some seriously challenging winds. And they were near-terrifying for Nikic.

“Yesterdays [sic] ride on Hawi mountain was really bad,” he wrote on Facebook. “Everything until yesterday was perfect. Yesterday was horrible. How bad? Worst experience ever. Put me in tears. Wind knocked me over about ten times. Scary. I wanted to quit. But I did not quit. I kept going. But mentally exhausting. That mountain is going to be a problem. So today we are going back to the spot on top where the funds were the worst. I will keep fighting until I win. Today, tomorrow, the next day until I can ride without getting knocked down.”

But as scary as it was, he didn’t give up, and managed to conquer the mountain the next day.

“Yesterday the 30 mph winds were so scary they made me cry. Today we went back for more,” he said. “I made it to the top of Hawi and back down without stopping. When I made it to the ice cream shop at the bottom, I was shaking.”

Then, when it came time for the actual race yesterday, Nikic conquered his fears and every other obstacle before him — and making it even more special was the fact it was also his birthday. And he knows the difference he is making by pushing so hard to succeed.

“Doing this race means feeling included in a community in a way I never was before starting triathlon,” he said. “It means inspiring other people with Down syndrome to go after their dreams.”

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