21-year-old Florida man becomes the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon

A Special Olympics athlete from Florida has become the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon.

On Saturday, Chris Nikic, 21, swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and ran a 26.2-mile marathon in 16 hours, 26 minutes, and nine seconds.

The incredible feat would be an accomplishment for anyone, but Chris’ triumph also landed him in the title of Guinness World Records holder as the first person with Down syndrome to complete in the event’s 42-year history.

Incredible! A Special Olympics athlete from Florida has become the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon

Incredible! A Special Olympics athlete from Florida has become the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon

Impressive! On Saturday, Chris Nikic, 21, swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and ran a 26.2-mile marathon in 16 hours, 26 minutes, and nine seconds

Impressive! On Saturday, Chris Nikic, 21, swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and ran a 26.2-mile marathon in 16 hours, 26 minutes, and nine seconds

Chris has overcome more challenges than most to become the star athlete he is today.

Born with Down syndrome, he’s had a host of health complications, including open-heart surgery when he was five months old. At age three, he needed a walker. 

By the time he was nine, Chris — whose sister Jacky is also a gifted athlete — was competing in special Olympics events. At 16, he started doing triathlons.

However, he suffered a two-year setback when he had to undergo ear surgeries, and when he got back to competing last year, it took a long time to build his strength back up. 

‘He’s gone from barely being able to do anything to running an Olympic-distance triathlon,’ his father Nik Nikic, told Team USA.

Chris had been planning to compete in the Half Ironman in Panama City Beach in May, but when it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, he signed up for this month’s full Ironman in Panama City Beach.

Working hard: Chris became a triathlete at age 16 and overcame health setbacks, training for hours every day

Working hard: Chris became a triathlete at age 16 and overcame health setbacks, training for hours every day 

No excuses! When gyms closed due to the pandemic, he took his swims from the pool to a lake

No excuses! When gyms closed due to the pandemic, he took his swims from the pool to a lake

Proud: His parents are very supportive. His dad Nik (pictured) says seeing his son's accomplishments makes he feel secure that his son will be OK when he's gone

Proud: His parents are very supportive. His dad Nik (pictured) says seeing his son’s accomplishments makes he feel secure that his son will be OK when he’s gone

He worked hard, training four to eight hours a day, six days a week. Before the pandemic, he’d take classes at a local gym, including spin, group fight, Zumba, and yoga. He’d also play basketball and swim laps in the pool.

After the pandemic led to gym closures, he had to adapt his workout but kept going, moving his swims to the lake.  

He powers through even when it’s hard, telling his coach when he’s feeling ‘fake pain’ — his way of describing pain or discomfort that he can fight through, like a cramp. 

‘I don’t use my condition as an excuse. Instead, I work harder,’ he said. ‘My dad told me, “Don’t ever doubt your dreams, Chris.” He told me God gave me gifts. I don’t ever doubt my dreams now.” 

His favorite part of the triathlon is running.

‘It makes my butt cute and the ladies love it,’ he told Today with a laugh.

'Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership,' Chris' dad said

‘Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership,’ Chris’ dad said

'He’s gone from barely being able to do anything to running an Olympic-distance triathlon,' he added

‘He’s gone from barely being able to do anything to running an Olympic-distance triathlon,’ he added

'Chris doesn’t do it to win,' his coach added. 'He does it with a mission to inspire others like him'

‘Chris doesn’t do it to win,’ his coach added. ‘He does it with a mission to inspire others like him’

Finally, on Saturday, it was finally his big moment. The Ironman Triathlon official Twitter account posted updates along the way, documenting Chris’ progress.

First was the swim, with Chris is his wet suit. Next up was the bike ride, which was interrupted by a small crash in which Chris scraped his knee — but got right back up and kept going.

The better part of a full day behind him, Chris crossed the finish line of his run at the end of a full marathon.

‘Chris actually seems to get faster at the end, and as soon as he finishes his father is waiting for him,’ his coach, Daniel Grieb, said. ‘They have this long, heartfelt hug where you can feel the pure love of father and son. It’s pride between the two of them that you just don’t see every day.’

‘To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory,’ his dad said, according to the BBC

Workout: Chris likes running best because it 'makes my butt cute and the ladies love it'

Workout: Chris likes running best because it ‘makes my butt cute and the ladies love it’

His dad said: 'If Chris can do an Ironman, he can do anything'

His dad said: ‘If Chris can do an Ironman, he can do anything’

‘Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership. It’s about being an example to other kids and families that face similar barriers, proving no dream or goal is too high. If Chris can do an Ironman, he can do anything.’ 

Not only is Nik incredibly proud of his son, but his success also gives him peace of mind. 

‘When you have a child with special needs, one of the things you think about often is if he’s going to be okay when you’re no longer here as a parent,’ he told USA Today.

‘You worry if he’s going to be able to take care of himself, to live life without you here. 

‘The feeling of him completing an Ironman, it means more than the finish line. It’s everything along the way with the training, the community he has supporting him, that tells me, he’s always going to be okay when I’m gone. He’s showing he can do anything he sets his mind to.’

'I love the attention because I love people,' he said of his win. 'It allows me to be like everybody else and [connect]'

‘I love the attention because I love people,’ he said of his win. ‘It allows me to be like everybody else and [connect]’

Next up! Chris has an even bigger goal for next year: He intends to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October 2021

Next up! Chris has an even bigger goal for next year: He intends to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October 2021

Chris, meanwhile, is thrilled about his win — but mostly because of the family and friends.

‘I love the attention because I love people,’ he said. ‘It allows me to be like everybody else and [connect].’

‘Chris doesn’t do it to win,’ his coach added. ‘He does it with a mission to inspire others like him.’

Next up, Chris has an even bigger goal for next year: He intends to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October 2021.

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