Chris Nikic is 1st person with Down syndrome to finish Ironman World Championship
At one point during the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona Hawaii, the wind gusts were so strong that Chris Nikic was peddling under 10 miles per hour on his bike. Dad Nik Nikic worried that his son, 23, might not finish the grueling race. But Chris Nikic pushed himself, increasing his speed to 17 miles per hour. He was able to finish the race in 16 hours 31 minutes and 27 seconds, making him the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Ironman championship race.
“I actually had to ride against the wind,” Chris Nikic of Maitland, Florida, told TODAY. “The wind just attacked me at 30 miles per hour.”
Nik Nikic said they had anticipated the wind being a challenge, so they arrived in Kona a few weeks earlier to help him prepare.
“We knew that problem,” he told TODAY. “We were out there … on the mountain every day for a week and a half before, practicing until he finally got it. And it took him awhile, but he figured it out.”
This preparation helped him speed up later in the biking portion of the race.
“He picked it up and got back up to about 17 miles per hour, and he was able to make up time,” Nik Nikic explained.
In 2020, Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim in open water, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles. This needs to be completed within 17 hours. Over the past five years since Chris Nikic started training for the Ironman, his dad has developed ways to help his son tackle any potential roadblocks.
“Everything we believe is going to be a challenge for him, we isolate and then we explain it to him, and we go together and break it down, and we just practice over and over until his subconscious mind gets used to it,” Nik Nikic said. “He doesn’t panic when it happens. He can deal with it.”
While planning ahead is part of Chris Nikic’s success, this attitude also helps him as a competitor.
“Chris is resilient. He doesn’t quit,” his dad said. “His strength, his determination, his work ethic and his willingness to fight through everything (keeps him competitive).”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel frustrated at times. During one of the practice bike rides, he fell off and gave his dad a hug while crying. But after a pep talk and remembering his girlfriend, Adrienne, would be waiting for him, Chris Nikic got back on the bike.
For Nik Nikic, watching his son compete in this Ironman wasn’t as nerve-wracking.
“It was very calming this time around versus the first time in Florida because we knew what we were up against and he did the work,” Nik Nikic said. “He did the work. There were no surprises other than the wind because everything else we had anticipated.”
Chris Nikic competes with a guide, Dan Grieb, who also joined him in his 2020 Panama City Beach Ironman race. Since then, Chris Nikic had been training hard for Kona.
“He had done everything he needed to do in preparation. He never made any excuses,” Nik Nikic said. “He never backed down from a long training day. He just got it done, and I was just at peace knowing that he had done everything he needed to do to get ready.”
At the finish line, Chris Nikic gave Adrienne a promise ring, and he looks forward to spending more time with her and eating Chipotle rice, a favorite of his. He’s heard from dozens of people who said that they tried running a race or accomplishing a goal they didn’t think they could after seeing how successful he was. He looks forward to seeing the next person with Down syndrome that will defy expectations.
“I want to know who is next,” he said.
He plans to take up boxing, improve his golf game and compete in the Abbott World Marathon Majors, six marathons that include Boston, Chicago, New York City, Tokyo, Berlin and London.
Nik Nikic said that he’s glad people’s perception of people with Down syndrome are changing, thanks in part to his son’s accomplishments.
“Change is hard. Change is slow. We’re anchored in a certain belief system around Down syndrome,” he said. “But it is changing because we’re seeing parents of kids with Down syndrome are not buying the narrative anymore.”
Chris Nikic hopes others learn from his example.
“The message would be simple: If they’re willing to work hard, to get 1% better, you can (achieve your dreams),” he said.