Nikic makes history as first person with Down Syndrome to finish IRONMAN marathon

The News Herald

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Chris Nikic made history on Saturday evening by becoming the first person with Down Syndrome to finish a full-distance IRONMAN triathlon. 

The 21-year-old Special Olympics Florida athlete crossed the finish line in 16:46.09 to complete the competition consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run totaling 140.6 miles, all of which needed to be completed in 17 hours. 

It's the second time this year that Nikic, a native of Maitland, Florida, has made history after becoming the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a half-distance triathlon (70.3 miles) in May. 

“Special Olympics Florida is incredibly proud of Chris Nikic and the work he’s put in over the last few years to achieve this monumental goal,“ said Sherry Wheelock the President & CEO of Special Olympics Florida. “Chris has become a hero to many athletes, fans and individuals across Florida and around the country. He is an inspiration to us all, and we couldn’t be prouder of his remarkable accomplishments.” 

Chris Nikic, left, crosses the finish line at Ironman Florida alongside his trainer and coach Dan Grieb on Nov. 7 in Panama City Beach.

Read more about his story:Florida athlete set to make history as first with Down Syndrome to compete at IRONMAN Florida

Nikic has been competing in triathlons since he was 16 years old. He next hopes to qualify for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando.  

His latest success was the culmination of years of training 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 recent media Zoom session. "We picked triathlon so we could get in shape together." 

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."

A woman cheers on Chris Bikic as he rides his bike during Saturday's IRONMAN Florida race.

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."

Shane Facteau, Chief Operating Officer at the IRONMAN Group, has 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."