The Current

Chris Nikic smashes record — and stigma — as 1st person with Down syndrome to finish Ironman triathlon

It’s hard enough to complete the Ironman competition as is, but Chris Nikic did something that had never been done before — he became the first person with Down syndrome to finish the triathlon. Guest host Rosemary Barton spoke to him and his father about the achievement.

He now has a platform to make a difference for others like him, says father

Chris Nikic, left, crosses the finish line of Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach, Fla. Nikic became the first Ironman finisher with Down syndrome. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

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Originally published on Nov. 20, 2020

When Chris Nikic crossed the finish line at the Ironman Florida competition in Panama City Beach, Fla., he was tired and relieved, as most people are when they complete the triathlon.

But unlike other contestants, Nikic is being called a trailblazer — the 21-year-old is the first person with Down syndrome to complete the competition. 

"I've been reading messages [from parents] saying I'm a hero to their kids and they'd like to be like me," he told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton. 

The triathlon, which took place Nov. 7, consisted of a 3.8-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike ride and a 42-kilometre marathon run.

It wasn't always comfortable, but Nikic completed it in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds — 14 minutes under the 17-hour cutoff time.

"The bike was hard. The seat, I was sitting on for, like, hours," he said. "And then the bike crashed, and then the ant bites."

"Other than that, it was a good race," his father, Nik Nikic, added.

1% Better Challenge

The family's initial goal wasn't to get Chris to participate in a triathlon, but rather to get him in shape — after coming off of four major ear surgeries — and involved in the community.

But after a heart-to-heart discussion about Chris's dreams of living independently, Nik suggested Chris do something big in order to achieve his dream.

"That's when we started thinking about what could he do to make a living, and … we said, 'Well, what if he did something amazing that would give him a story to tell that would be inspirational?' And that's how Ironman came along," he said. 

Nikic competes in the bike portion of the Ironman Florida triathlon. He said the bike portion was the hardest part of the race. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

But the process of getting Chris ready for the triathlon wasn't going to happen overnight. Nik knew it would take a lot of determination and hard work for his son to be prepared for the gruelling competition. 

That's why Nik introduced the 1% Better Challenge — a challenge that encourages taking small steps towards improvement on a day-by-day basis.

"Psychologically, nobody likes pain, and one per cent improvement is just enough to improve without actually causing any physical pain because you're not doing much more than you've done before," he said. 

"So by eliminating the pain that's associated with the way most people train, Chris was able to sustain the effort for a longer period of time."

Chris can attest to the success of his father's training method. 

"[When] I approached the competition, I did one push up, one sit-up and one squat," he said. "And then I got 200 pushups, 200 squats, 200 sit-ups."

Nik Nikic, left, helps Chris transition to the bike portion of the Ironman Florida triathlon. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images for Ironman)

Breaking stigma

Nik says he always believed in his son's capabilities.

"He doesn't compromise, he doesn't complain, he doesn't push back," he said. "Every day he looks at what he did the day before, the week before, and he just works a little bit harder to just get a little bit better, and his success is really the culmination of consistent effort over two years."

Chris's efforts were documented throughout the triathlon — the final stretch of his run was streamed live on Ironman's Facebook page.

And following his accomplishment, Chris's social media inbox was flooded with congratulatory messages and thousands of new followers.

"I've been reading messages [from parents] saying I'm a hero to their kids and they'd like to be like me."​​​​- Chris Nikic

For Chris, who Nik says has had to overcome many obstacles that have tried to derail him, the sense of inclusion he's received since the accomplishment means a lot.

"I realize that I'm a part of the Ironman family," Chris said. 

Nik says the inclusion and attention Chris is receiving has helped him develop from a cognitive standpoint.

"What we're seeing through all of these interviews, as he's talking to people, his cognitive ability is starting to develop in a way we never thought possible," he said. "So now he's just having conversations and interviews with people, something he's never been able to do before."

From an athletic standpoint, Chris is not done yet. He'll be participating in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii next year, and he'll also attend the 2022 Special Olympics.

Nik says his son's accomplishments disprove the stigma and assumptions surrounding the physical and intellectual capabilities of people with disabilities. 

"For him, it started out as a personal goal and a personal dream," he said. "But it's morphed into something much bigger, where he now has a purpose and a platform in order to make a difference with other people like him."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Cameron Perrier.