How Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon

Chris Nikic can boil down a lot of his success to a single number: one percent.

“My advice is basically like, start exercising, gain one percent every day,” the 21-year-old told In The Know. “Do it with a smile, and it all pays off.”

That’s the philosophy Chris and his trainer, Ironman competitor Dan Grieb, have used throughout their journey together. It’s a journey that, after hours and hours of practice and hard work, reached a conclusion on Nov. 7 — when Chris became the first-ever person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon.

Of course, there are plenty of other numbers Chris could now use to describe himself.

There’s 2.4, the number of miles he swam on that Saturday morning, kicking off his race in Panama City. Then there’s 112, which is how many miles he rode that day. Also, 26.2: The marathon-length run he completed to end his race with another now-crucial number, 14 minutes.

That’s how many minutes Chris had to spare. To complete an Ironman, contestants must accomplish all three feats — swimming, cycling and running — in under 17 hours. Nikic finished in 16 hours, 46 minutes, according to CNN.

The accomplishment wasn’t just monumental (only about 16,000 Americans complete an Ironman race each year): For Chris, it was affirming.

“I felt like, ‘I’m an Iron Man,'” he said of the moment he crossed the finish line.

Chris told In The Know that his training, which started two years ago, was all about “taking the lid off” — meaning, ignoring the limitations of what others said a young man with Down syndrome should be doing.

“That’s what we did: We took a lid off from him,” Nic Nikic, Chris’ father, added. “[We said], ‘Let’s see what he can actually do.’ And we just took away all of the preconceived limitations.”

The challenges of training were one thing, but the race was another beast entirely. Chris faced a few speed bumps along the way, including two falls from his bike and a nasty run-in with some fire ants. The 21-year-old described those obstacles, simply, as “fear.”

As the race neared its close, that fear gave way to victory. The sports world has responded to Chris’s achievement with an outpouring of support. 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.”

Nic told In The Know that those messages meant a lot to Chris, but what mattered more were his “angels,” which is what the Nikics have taken to calling the friends, family and training buddies who have been with Chris every step of the way.

“The famous people are nice, but it’s his team that’s really important,” Nic said.

Grieb feels lucky to be one of those angels. The 45-year-old called Chris, now a lifelong friend, “one of the most amazing people” he’s ever met.

“I didn’t even know anyone who had Down syndrome a year ago,” Grieb told In The Know. “My life is forever changed by this relationship.”

The relationship has given Grieb full confidence that Chris can change plenty more lives, too — especially those of athletes looking to follow in his footsteps.

“When you look at a person like Chris, you can see his disability,” Grieb said. “But there’s a lot of people who you can’t see [their disability]. And the expectations for people like them are oftentimes entirely too low, and they’re artificial.”

As for Chris himself, he’s back to training. Next up, he’s got his eyes set on the 2021 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. After that, he hopes to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics.

Chris will need an invitation for both events, but he’s not concerned about that. As he said in an Instagram video just days after his landmark finish, he’s certain he’ll “crush” the 2021 Hawaii race.

If you liked this story, check out this article on Shelby Lynch, a Gen Z model with spinal muscular atrophy.

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