Chris Nikic became the first person with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman at Ironman Florida in late 2020. Now he’s heading to the Big Island of Hawai’i to take on the Ironman World Championship on October 6.
An Ironman is a huge undertaking for anyone. Swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in less than 17 hours. That’s enough to make anyone question their physical and mental abilities even a little bit.
Now imagine following the start line of an Ironman without fully conceptualizing the actual distance of 140.6 miles or the duration of 17 hours. Imagine lining up for this one-day race having already survived open-heart surgery and numerous head and neck surgeries. To imagine all of this, and you still choose to step forward into the open ocean when the shot rings out because to you, an Ironman represents inclusion and freedom from the constraints of being told you’re destined for a secluded life and sedentary.
This is the outline painting of Nikic’s journey to get to the start line of the Ironman World Championship. The 22-year-old Floridian will be the first person with Down syndrome to even attempt to complete the 140.6-mile race that sends athletes into the rolling ocean, through scorching lava fields and headfirst into strong winds.
From can’t to can
Nikic was born with several birth defects that affected his heart function, hearing and balance, and required several serious surgeries. Despite the success of the procedures, Nikic’s parents were told that he would still lead a sedentary life and find it difficult to be independent or social.
“The message we were told was always, ‘Here’s what Chris can’t do,'” said Nik Nikic, Chris Nikic’s father.
“During Chris’ teenage years, we saw him turn to triathlon as part of Special Olympics. We decided to stop listening to these negative messages and see how far athletics could take him.
After a few years of racing in the Special Olympics triathlon event, Nikic got too fast for his race guide and was paired up again with Dan Grieb, who is still Nikic’s guide today.
As a guide, it’s Grieb’s job to stay with Nikic every moment of the race. The pair are tied together swimming and running, but ride on separate bikes with Grieb following close behind Nikic.
Together, Grieb and Nikic went from local short-distance triathlons to a half-ironman and eventually, Ironman Florida in 2020 together. The pair were then invited to compete in the Ironman World Championship, which is making a comeback this year after being canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.
“The second Nikic enters the water for the start of the race on October 6, people with learning disabilities around the world have won and are part of the wider endurance community,” Grieb said. “My goal for Nikic is to see him approach this race the way I know he can and test his limits and see how far he can go on race day.”
1% more movement
Getting to Ironman is an exceptional achievement for Nikic for many reasons, one of them being that someone with Down syndrome has trouble conceptualizing time and distances. For Nikic, when he starts a race, it can go on forever, really. Grieb helps Nikic break the race down into manageable chunks and reminds him of the finish line.
Nikic has built up to this point using a method he and his father devised: the 1% more movement. The bottom line is that by aiming to become 1% stronger, faster and more focused every day, Nikic could eventually compete in the Ironman World Championship.
“People with Down syndrome learn more slowly and are highly dependent on routines,” Nik Nikic said. “With the 1% methodology, Nikic is able to focus on achievable goals that, overtime, allow him to be ready to race in the Super Bowl of Triathlon – the World Championship.”
Nikic keeps his cool despite all the hype surrounding his run.
“Doing this race means feeling included in a community in a way that I never was before starting triathlon,” Nikic said. “It means inspiring other people with Down syndrome to pursue their dreams.”
Nikic went on to say that the triathlon helped him develop other skills necessary for greater independence: social skills, pain management, mental focus and, even, public speaking. These days, Nikic is a motivational speaker in addition to being a triathlete.
Of the three disciplines, cycling is Nikic’s favourite. But being someone with Down syndrome can make it difficult to achieve the classic aero position of a triathlete on a TT bike due to differences in motor function and reaction times, so Nikic and his dad had to improvise.
“Previously, Nikic rode upright all the time,” said Nik Nikic. “But after about an hour in the saddle he had stiffness in his lower back and buttocks. This obviously wouldn’t be enough for an Iron-distance race, so we had to get creative.
Nikic rides a Ventum GS1 gravel bike – the wider wheels give him greater stability – and has tried many aftermarket clip-on aero bars, but nothing gave him the width and stack he needed to get going. feel safe while driving.
Undeterred, Nik Nikic began ordering bits of piping, and McGuyver turned them into a variety of aero extensions right in the family’s garage.
“Finally we got to the position that Nikic is now with the in-house aero setup,” said Nik Nikic. “And using the 1% better method, we started the bars really high and almost straight, then gradually lowered the stack until Nikic was in his current position, which is almost a true ‘aero adjustment. ‘.”
This position allows Nikic to comfortably and safely brave the winds of the famous Queen K highway which is the bike course of the Ironman World Champs while drinking and eating – and preventing his butt from going numb.
Repetition makes perfect
The best way for Nikic to succeed and whatever he thinks is to get familiar with everything he wants to overcome.
The toughest part of the bike course at the World Championships is the climb to Hawi Town, which is the bike bend in the northern part of the island. This is a steady but relentless climb known for its aggressive crosswinds.
Nikic and Grieb, who are already in Kona at the time we spoke to them, rode the climb to Hawi most days to learn all of its twists.
When asked how he felt about the climb, Nikic simply replied “good”. He’s never one to exaggerate or feign drama, he simply takes on every challenge with a calm ferocity that other athletes would do well to adopt.
Nikic’s main goal for the race is to inspire other people with Down syndrome to push their limits – and finish before the 5 p.m. deadline, of course.
“My girlfriend comes to watch me run and I can’t wait to give her a kiss at the end,” Nikic said. “Race day, I’ll be ready to rock, baby.”
Nikic’s race number is 117 and you can follow him starting at 6:27 a.m. HST on Thursday, October 6.