There is no doubt that on November 7, 2020, Chris Nikic changed the world by becoming the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman. But in reality, he, his family and his coach have been changing the world for the past two years as Chris journeyed from a sprint triathlon to an Ironman 70.3 and, ultimately, to Ironman Florida. Process is the key to all goals because even without the finish line, Chris is an extraordinary example of: “Don’t tell me what I cannot do. Let me tell you what I can do.” We could all use a bit of that in our lives right now. I spoke with Chris the other day.
When you meet someone with Down syndrome, you feel love. Alex, the son of one of my dearest friends, has Down syndrome. And for 20 years, I have seen Alex full of joy and love and acting as the family’s social butterfly. In fact, when I think of Alex and now having experienced Chris’s spirit, I refer to their condition as Up syndrome because there is nothing “Down” about either of them. When I asked Chris what message he would like to put on a billboard, he said, without hesitation, “Love and Hugs!” I don’t think you or I could have answered so quickly or so emphatically.
“Love and Hugs” are Chris’ favourite things about triathlon. The social interactions and the people are his rewards for all the training and the learning. Hugs, he says, are his “fourth sport.”
A little background about Chris and what he’s accomplished: he is 21-years-old and lives in Maitland, Florida. And an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride and a 26.2-mile run. Personally, I have raced 33 Ironman races and won eleven. Let me tell you: it is one of the hardest sports in the world and has inflicted both pain and pleasure on tens of thousands of finishers each year. But in 2020, COVID-19 put Ironman in its own pain-cave as most races were cancelled and athletes had to pivot and adapt. Not only did Chris finish one of the most demanding events in endurance sports, but he did it amidst a pandemic. Chris has thrived in spite of Down syndrome and COVID-19. He is our Athlete of the Year, and his accomplishment adds a significant exclamation point to his Guinness Book World Record.
He told me: “Every child needs to realize that we can do anything. They can all get their dreams like me.”
Nik Nikic, Chris’s father, says he found peace in seeing his son cross the Ironman finish line. “I would cry like a baby when he finished the other races en route to the full Ironman,” he said, “but when he was in those last miles of the marathon and crossed the finish line, I was at peace. I didn’t cry because his finish meant that anything was possible. It meant that Chris would be OK.” Nik had long been Chris’s “person” but now, Chris had his coach and guide, Dan Grieb. And that partnership, that freedom, represented a significant step toward his boy’s independence. Nik told me, after seeing his son finish: “I know Chris is going to be OK on his own.”
Learning any sport is often a “one-step forward, one-step back” challenge. Now picture yourself in Chris’s shoes finding the coordination and balance to walk – a skill often taken for granted – and finally mastering it at 4 years old. Remember when you learned to ride a bike? Eventually, Chris learned that skill as well. With his indomitable will, patient mother and father and a spirit that cannot be defined by textbook statistics, he wiped out all of the limitations imposed when he was born with a third chromosome.
Like most of us, even all of us—like me and you—he found joy and courage in sport. Thanks to the Special Olympics, he discovered swimming and running. In 2018, Chris completed his first sprint triathlon at Lake Louisa State Park, in Clermont, Florida. Now, Chris was no longer just an athlete. He was rewriting the rules of Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a genetic disorder resulting in an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21. This extra genetic material results in developmental delays, learning disabilities and medical abnormalities. That is why walking and riding a bike were huge hurdles for Chris. But in overcoming these obstacles and making triathlon part of his personal DNA, Chris’s cognitive ability, lung health, self-esteem and social connections all flourished. Penicillin may have been one of history’s greatest antibiotics, but exercise and physical activity is the best prescription for wellness of mind and body.
I know that many have found comfort in sport over the past nine months as we were all faced with the uncertainty of COVID-19. And we still are. But there is a sense of pride, normalcy and fulfillment in finishing a workout. And that satisfaction empowered us to handle the blows—the lack of “hugs and love” during quarantine.
Chris didn’t need antibiotics during the pandemic. He had a goal. No one was going to tell him how his life would unfold. He would do an Ironman and prove to himself and the world that he—and anyone with any disease or disorder or impairment—can accomplish the impossible. “The kids are saying to their moms I want to be like him and get their own cars and their own house and their smoking hot blondes just like me,” Chris says, with a laugh. In Chris’s example, we have all learned that with heart and belief, every one of us can redefine our potential and exceed expectations. When you are driven by what’s inside, everything becomes possible. “Don’t tell me what I cannot do. Let me tell you what I can do.” These are words we all need to be reminded of today.
Yes, Ironman Florida was hard. Chris trained and competed with Dan Grieb. Dan, you are an angel and a miracle maker. Thank you for sharing your talent and treasure to turn a dream into reality. “‘Anything is possible’ did not include kids with Down syndrome and now it does,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of it.”
Chris was not afraid. Even 2K from shore during the 3.8K open water swim, Chris was brave. One stroke at a time, he would finish that leg of his race.
Onto the bike, Chris stopped every 20 minutes for fuel, which consisted of fluid and gels. His balance was challenged a few times. He fell down. But a tumble wasn’t going to keep him from the finish line. He’d fallen down before. And he got up every time.
When there was doubt, Chris would silence that negativity.
Ironically, I suggest to my athletes to put their doubts in a bag and tie it to a tree and go back and get it later, after the race. At 21-years-old, Chris had the wisdom to “dump” negative feelings and never look back.
And yes, there was pain. Of course there was pain. After swimming more than two miles and biking more than one hundred miles, he had to run a marathon. It hurts. Chris, however, had devised a coping mechanism. He says, “I told the pain to go away.”
Toward the end of the race, toward his march into history, Chris was surrounded by his favourite thing about sport – the people, and the “hugs and love.” In the words of Terry Fox: “One step at a time, one pole at time, one mile at a time.”
Chris Nikic, the first athlete ever with Down syndrome, crossed the finish line at Ironman Florida in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds. Faster athletes may have reached the finish line first, but trust me — Chris was the champion that day. And it appears he’s just getting started. Two weeks later, Chris was honoured with the Local Hero Award by the governor of Florida. He will also be on the triathlon team for the USA Games for the Special Olympics. Next up is Challenge Daytona and Chris’s goal is to ride with a constant pace for the entire bike leg. He will check out the course so that there are no surprises. The learning has not stopped in spite of his success.
I suggested Chris spearhead a 3-person relay team with two of his friends with Down syndrome. That would be another way to “live the message” and embrace all that Chris’s finish and journey means to his Down syndrome community.
Chris also may join in the RODS 2100 – The Journey Home relay starting on March 21, 2021. RODS—Racing for Orphans with Down syndrome—raises money to support families wanting to adopt a child with his genetic disorder. This 2100-mile relay race takes runners through eight American states and past the homes of ten families who have adopted children with Down syndrome. Rob Wight, director for RODS Racing and Alex’s dad, said at the finish line: “Who would have imagined that 2020 would turn out to be the best year of my life? Nik and I watched as Alex put the finisher medal on Chris. The world saw this and realized that for all people, no matter what, anything is possible.”
In the meantime, Chris will continue to train, get strong, build confidence and develop his skills in preparation to race at the 2021 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. What a perfect place for Chris to feel and share “Love and Hugs,” Hawaiian style. Aloha, Chris – and welcome to the Ironman family from everyone here in Canada. Continue to lead with heart, you inspire all of us, despite the obstacles, to finish what you start.
You are the 2020 Sportstats iRunner of the Year.
Lisa Bentley is an 11-time Ironman Champion, author of An Unlikely Champion, speaker and coach. Lisa has Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic lung disease that causes an abnormal amount of mucus to accumulate in the lungs. This leads to chronic lung infections, lung damage, lung transplant and ultimately early death. Lisa says that CF is her superpower. She should not have won a single race. But, like Chris, she turned a “no” into a “yes” and found a way where there was no way. Lisa is an ASICS ambassador and continues to embrace sport every day. You can find her at www.lisabentley.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.