Florida athlete set to make history as first with Down Syndrome to compete at IRONMAN Florida

Dustin Kent
The News Herald
Chris Nikic will become the first person with Down Syndrome to compete in a full IRONMAN triathlon on Saturday at IRONMAN Florida in Panama City Beach. SPECIAL OLYMPICS FLORIDA PHOTO

On the list of most difficult sporting accomplishments any athlete can manage, finishing a triathlon has to rank right near the top. 

The 2.4-mile swim followed by the 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run makes for a long and arduous journey to the finish line for even the youngest and fittest of athletes. 

On Saturday at the Visit Panama City Beach IRONMAN Florida race, Chris Nikic intends to show that you need not be at the top of the athletic food chain to finish the race, that there is in fact no shortage of obstacles that will and determination can't overcome. 

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The 21-year-old Maitland resident will become the first person with Down Syndrome to compete in the IRONMAN race just six months after becoming the first to complete a half-distance (70.3 miles) triathlon. 

It will be the culmination of years of training that was originally sparked by a much more modest mission from his father, Nik. 

"My dad wanted me to be happy and be included in activities with other people," Chris said during a Thursday media Zoom session. "We picked triathlon so we could get in shape together." 

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Nik said the idea came to him three years ago as his son was coming off of four major ear surgeries over two years, which left him living a more sedentary lifestyle and putting on extra weight. 

"I was concerned because after high school and after graduation a lot of kids with Down Syndrome become isolated and just start living a life of isolation," he said. "I said, look, let's go find him something to get him back into the world and get him involved, so we started looking around and we were fortunate that at the same time Special Olympics Florida started this triathlon program and I thought what a great way to get him started, get him in shape, and get him to make some friends."

Chris Nikic will become the first person with Down Syndrome to compete in a full IRONMAN triathlon on Saturday at IRONMAN Florida in Panama City Beach. SPECIAL OLYMPICS FLORIDA PHOTO

Chris fell in love with the sport and took to it immediately, and Nik said that it not only helped his son get into better condition physically but also benefitted him socially. 

"Chris has been involved with the Special Olympics for a long time, but the challenge is you show up once a week for an hour or so and you show up for a few competitions. That's nice, but that's not life," he said. "We were looking for something for him to do every day and be included and the combination of the Special Olympics and triathlons and IRONMAN have given him that perfect scenario. 

"He wakes up at five in the morning and trains with a triathlon clock. Literally six days a week he's training with people, and in the process of training with him they included him in what they do. They realized he was a pretty neat kid so they started inviting him to dinners and lunches and parties ... and this whole project has given him a whole new world of inclusion."

Among the new friends that Chris has been able to make is Dan Grieb, a Unified Partner with Special Olympics Florida and Chris' personal coach. While Grieb has been helping Chris prepare for the specific challenges of the triathlon, he credited Nik for setting the foundation to make his training possible. 

Chris Nikic rides bikes alongside his trainer Dan Grieb. Nikic will become the first person with Down Syndrome to compete in a full IRONMAN triathlon on Saturday at IRONMAN Florida in Panama City Beach. SPECIAL OLYMPICS FLORIDA PHOTO

"I have to give all of the credit to Chris' dad because he installed a great baseline of thinking," Grieb said. "Every day Chris has to get one percent better, he has to do everything with a smile, and he doesn't make excuses. With that baseline I can teach Chris anything because we can always revert back to that baseline." 

The 'one percent better' mantra has been essential to Chris' development and is tailored around his specific challenges and personality, accoridng to Nik. 

"We needed to do something that was really simple that Chris could understand and wrap his brain around it," he said. "We came up with the concept to just get a little better today than yesterday. We also needed something easy, fun, and painless because Chris doesn't like pain so that one percent gradual increase doesn't create any residual pain and it's just more fun. It made it pain-free and fun and it made it a permanent lifestyle habit that he's gonna do for the rest of his life." 

As Chris put it, "One percent better means being in better shape today than yesterday, one percent better means one more today, one more tomorrow so that on Nov. 7 I will be an IRONMAN." 

Shane Facteau, Chief Operating Officer at the IRONMAN Group, said that Chris represents the true spirit of the IRONMAN competition and that no one better epitomizes the group's tagline of "anything is possible." 

Facteau said that Chris' participation in this year's IRONMAN Florida could not have come at a better time given all of the struggles and challenges they've faced this year. 

"I can say on an individual level that he has had a huge impact on our team," he said. "It's been a rough year in a lot of ways. We had to move a lot of races and I think he may not understand this but the positive impact he has had on individuals in our organization has been tremendous. It's so good to see the team be around him and feel the positive energy. 

"He's pushing the boundaries of what's possible. He's putting himself out there and that's something people need to understand. He's taking the opportunity and there's always risk in that there's the chance of success or failure. We love to see people of all shapes and sizes do that. Our job in many ways is to open those opportunities to all people." 

Nik said that even he has been surprised by just what training for IRONMAN has made possible for Chris from a physical and mental standpoint. 

"In the process we've learned two things," he said. "One is that he is physically so much more capable than anything we ever imagined. He's gonna have a really fun life because he's gonna be able to participate in just about anything because if you can do IRONMAN you can anything. 

"The second thing is we noticed Chris had a hard time learning and really connecting with anything because he couldn't remember stuff. If you can't remember anything it's hard to even have a decent conversation, and what we learned as we were getting serious about IRONMAN is that his memory started to improve and his cognitive ability started to improve. We realized the skills he was picking up much faster and his retention of information was much better. 

"He's still nowhere near where he will be two or three years from now, but we'll see him accelerate physically and cognitively to levels that were just unimaginable before."

Chris' development and growth during his training has had a profound impact on Grieb, who said he has never had any real contact with anyone with Down Syndrome before meeting Chris. 

"For me one of the most magical things that has happened to me is being able to be introduced into this world," he said. "In this world I've learned that a hug can solve a lot of problems, that some of the greatest among us are people that we label as disabled, and that the way we teach them to be successful, if we would all just listen, are the same things that we need to do to be successful. 

"People like Chris want the exact same things that you and I do, they just need a hand up in getting it sometimes or a different methodology in teaching them how to get it. I've learned that you can teach anybody anything if you're willing to love them through their disabiility and love them through their struggle." 

Grieb is far from the only one to draw inspiration from Chris' journey, with Nik saying that they've received countless messages of support from kids with disabilities from all over the world saying that they want to follow in Chris' footsteps or even train with him personally. 

Chris, who also hopes to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, said the messages make him realize how significant his mission really is. 

"What it means is that myself as a Down Syndrome triathlete is very powerful," he said before relaying what many of the messages to him relay. "They say I'm their hero."  

Chris will be accompanied by Grieb during the race, which he'll have 17 hours to finish. However he does on Saturday, Chris promises to stay true to the Special Olympics oath, which he recited on Thursday. 

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."