For Down’s Syndrome Awareness Month, we look back at our issue 5 interview with Chris Nikic, who opens up about why it’s “time to be inclusive.”
By Madison Patterson.
For the Nikic family, it’s all about having a big dream.
And recently, through hard work, 22-year-old Chris Nikic achieved a colossal, enormous dream. On November 7, 2020, he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon.
Ironmans are a grueling test of physical and mental endurance, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and finally, a 26.2-mile run. Participants must complete the event in 17 hours, and clocking in at 16 hours 46 minutes 9 seconds, Chris completed this historic accomplishment with just minutes to spare. “What I felt was amazing,” he says of crossing that finish line. “It means a lot of things… to inspire kids who might have Down syndrome.”
He achieved a feat that’s unfathomable for most, but one that’s particularly inspiring, considering the numerous health issues Chris has tackled since he was born, including open- heart surgery at five months old, and that those with Down syndrome face obstacles including low muscle tone and loose ligaments. And he did it using a formula he and his father developed: the 1% Better Challenge.
“If you’re going to do a big goal, you need to put in a big effort, and that’s when we designed the 1% Better plan,” says Chris’s father, Nik. “His entire journey has been defined by this concept of 1% better.”
“The message is clear— it’s time to be inclusive.”
Chris’s interest in athletics sprouted at a young age, from watching his older sister play basketball and participate in various competitive settings. “He always loved sports,” Nik says. “He was always behind and it was always difficult, but he loved to play.” Once this athletic interest boiled over into a passion, the 1% Better strategy was born to help him conquer seemingly insurmountable goals. He soon began outrunning his first trainer, outgrowing his next, and so on, resulting in a community of supporters helping him to reach this daily 1% goal. “Chris’s secret to success is that he just keeps going when most other people take time off or quit. He doesn’t quit, he just keeps getting 1% better every day,” says Nik.
Having mastered this mindset, Chris also underwent a strenuous physical training process with his assistant coach and guide, Dan Grieb, who found his way to the Nikic family after running an Ironman of his own. “I went on my own weight-loss journey—I weighed 300lb—and I decided to do an Ironman myself,” he says. “When I was done, I thought, ‘How do I thank God for me being able to restore my health in my forties?’ And I figured the best way to do that was to help someone else become an Ironman.” After connect- ing, Chris and Dan spent up to eight hours training almost every day in preparation for the Ironman, which was held in Panama City, Florida, working on swimming, strength, track work, and cycling.
This mental and physical training was vital to his success in the triathlon, where common obstacles like hunger and fatigue proved difficult to overcome, and where unusual accidents—“I mistakenly stepped into an ant pile… I crashed my bike,” Chris recounts—made his march to the finish line a strenuous one.
But since Chris aced that Florida Ironman, a few more big dreams have entered the works. The first is somewhat expect- ed for a lifelong athlete: Chris is training to compete in the more challenging Hawaii Ironman triathlon, currently scheduled for this October. Rougher terrain and a more unforgiving sea means a higher-intensity race than that of the Panama City competition, and more intense training as well. However, it’s his other, lifelong big dream that guides his ambitions and seems dearest to his heart. “We need to live a life that’s inclusive, instead of living a life in isolation,” Chris says of the Down syndrome community. “I’m not waiting anymore.” For him, that inclusive life means one that’s independent and comes with the freedoms and foibles that most people take for granted. A house of his own, a car of his own, and a “smoking hot blonde” wife are all high on his checklist.
Studies suggest that, more often than not, adults with Down syndrome do not live independent lives, in that they often live with and rely upon parents well into adulthood. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that a reasonably independent life can be achieved through the utilization of educational resources, job training programs, and hard work. Not only does Chris want these things for himself, but he also wants to do it in a way that shows others with disabilities that they can reach autonomy, too. And he makes it clear that whether negative messaging comes from a stranger on the street or a healthcare professional, no one can define his limits. “We need to stop listening to [doubters],” he says. “The message is clear—it’s time to be inclusive.”
Dan, literally tethered to Chris during the final running leg of the race, sees Chris’s athletic accomplishments as a meaningful step toward furthering that goal. “I could hear the Down syndrome world taking a gasp of breath and saying, ‘Thank God,’” he says of crossing the finish line together.
Chris’s father, who has been at his side during the training and competition processes, knows this goal of inspiration and independence to be a real possibility. “I was feeling at peace [when he crossed the finish line], seeing him achieve and accomplish so much,” Nik says. “The peace I felt was a lot to do with knowing that he can do anything, that he can live a fairly independent life. But it was also peace for others like him. His example would be a great example for others like him who have disabilities, who could envision a richer, more fulfilling life for themselves.”
In the end, he attributes his son’s successes and potential to those core tenets of the Nikic household: dreaming big and getting 1% better. “He wants to live a life like the rest of us —a life of inclusion, a life of independence,” Nik says. “He wants to earn his own way. And that’s a big dream for someone with Down syndrome.”