Inspirational Chris Nikic becomes the first athlete with Down syndrome to finish Ironman race

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Chris Nikic was the first athlete with the congenital condition to cross the Ironman finish line (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Chris Nikic was the first athlete with the congenital condition to cross the Ironman finish line (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

While some of us struggled to manage a walk around the block during lockdown, early morning runs and intense workout sessions were routine for Chris Nikic from Florida in the US.

It all formed part of his training to compete and cross the finish line of the Ironman Triathlon by the time he turned 21 – a cherished personal goal for him.

This month he smashed that goal and in doing so became the first athlete with Down syndrome to finish the race, with 14 minutes to spare.  

“It means I can achieve my dreams and take care of myself,” he told Runner’s World. “It also means I can inspire others like me to go after their dreams.”

Throughout Chris’ life doctors had told his parents about all the things their son might never be able to do with his cognitive disability.

“For 18 years, we accepted the conventional wisdom that Chris was ‘special’ and therefore had lots of limitations,” explains his dad, Nik Nikic. “But then we decided to treat him as ‘gifted’ instead, and we’ve discovered that deep down inside there really were these hidden gifts.”

After competing in the Special Olympics triathlon with a 1 000m open-water swim last year, the young athlete decided to push himself even further.

With the help of dedicated trainer Dan Grieb by his side and motivation from his dad, Chris began his Ironman journey – training up to six hours a day, six times a week, Runner’s World reports.

The gruelling triathlon, which has been around for 42 years, starts off with a 3,9km swim followed by a 180km cycle and ends with a 42,2km run to the finish line. Participants need to tap deep into their energy sources and mental reserves to complete all activities within the cut-off time of 17 hours.

Running, the final segment of the race, is said to be the most challenging. But for, Chris, who only started walking when he was four years old, admits it’s his favourite part since it means he’s closer to the finish line.

“It helps me get a cute butt, and the ladies like that,” he adds.

Chris, who also gives motivational speeches, refuses to be defined by Down syndrome.

According to his website, his motto is simply to get “1% better every day”.

While the 21-year-old was the first athlete with the congenital condition to cross the finish line, the Ironman group hopes he won’t be the last.

"We are beyond inspired, and your accomplishment is a defining moment in Ironman history that can never be taken away from you," the group tweeted.

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