Chris Nikic heads to Kona, aims to become the first person with Down Syndrome to complete the Ironman World Championships

'The second Nikic gets in the water for the start of the race on October 6, people all over the world with intellectual disabilities have won.'

Chris Nikic prepares for the Ironman World Championship
(Image credit: Nik Nikic)

Chris Nikic became the first person with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman at Ironman Florida in late 2020. Now, he heads to the Big Island of Hawai’i to take on the Ironman World Championship on October 6. 

An Ironman is a huge undertaking for anyone. Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in under 17 hours. It’s enough to make anyone question their physical and mental capabilities, even just a little bit. 

Now, imagine toeing the start line of an Ironman without fully conceptualizing how far 140.6 miles really is or how long 17 hours feels like. Imagine lining up for this all-day race after already having survived open heart surgery and extensive head and neck surgeries. Imagine all that, and you still choose to press forward into the open ocean when the gun sounds because to you, an Ironman represents inclusion and freedom from the constraints of being told you’re destined for an isolated, sedentary life.

This is the broad stroke painting of Nikic’s journey of getting to the Ironman World Championship start line. The 22-year-old Floridian will be the first person with Down Syndrome to even attempt to finish the 140.6-mile race that sends athletes into the rolling ocean, through the scorching lava fields and head first into powerful winds. 

Chris Nikic prepares for the Ironman World Championship

(Image credit: Nik Nikic)

From Can’t to Can

Nikic was born with several birth defects that affected his heart function, hearing and balance, and required several serious surgeries. Despite the successful procedures, Nikic’ parents were told he’d always live a sedentary life and it would be difficult for him to be independent or social.

“The message told to us was always, ‘Here’s what Chris can’t do’,” said Nik Nikic, Chris Nikic’ father.

“In Chris’ teen years, we saw him gravitate toward triathlon as part of the Special Olympics. We decided not to listen to those negative messages anymore and instead see how far athletics could take him.”

After a few years of racing in the Special Olympics triathlon event, Nikic became too fast for his race guide and was paired anew with Dan Grieb, who is still Nikic’s guide today.

As a guide, it’s Grieb’s job to stay with Nikic every moment of the race. The pair are tethered together on the swim and the run, but ride separate bikes with Grieb following closely behind Nikic.

Together, Grieb and Nikic progressed from doing local short-distance triathlons to a half ironman and eventually, Ironman Florida in 2020 together. The pair were then invited to compete at the Ironman World Championship, which makes its return this year after being canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.

“The second Nikic gets in the water for the start of the race on October 6, people all over the world with intellectual disabilities have won, and become part of the larger endurance community,” Grieb said. “My goal for Nikic is to see him tackle this race the way I know he can and test his limitations and see how far he can go on race day.”

Chris Nikic prepares for the Ironman World Championship

(Image credit: Nik Nikic)

1% Better Movement

Making it to the Ironman is an exceptional achievement for Nikic for many reasons, one of them being that a person with Down Syndrome has trouble conceptualizing time and distances. To Nikic, when he starts a race, it could go on forever, truly. Grieb helps Nikic break down the race into manageable chunks and reminds him of the finish line.

Nikic built up to this moment using a method he and his dad devised: the 1% better movement. The gist is that by aiming to get 1% stronger, faster, more focused each day, Nikic would eventually be able to compete at the Ironman World Championship.

“People with Down Syndrome learn slower and rely heavily on routines,” Nik Nikic said. “With the 1% methodology, Nikic is able to focus on attainable goals that over time build up to him being ready to race at the Super Bowl of triathlon - the World Championship.”

Nikic is keeping his cool despite all the hype around his race.

“Doing this race means feeling included in a community in a way I never was before starting triathlon,” Nikic said. “It means inspiring other people with Down Syndrome to go after their dreams.”

Nikic went on to say that triathlon has helped him foster other skills needed for greater independence: social skills, pain management, mental focus and, even, public speaking. These days, Nikic is a motivational speaker on top of being a triathlete.

Chris Nikic prepares for the Ironman World Championship

(Image credit: Nik Nikic)

Getting Aero

Of the three disciplines, biking is Nikic’ favorite. But being a person with Down Syndrome can make achieving the classic aerodynamic position of a triathlete on a TT bike difficult due to differences in motor function and reaction time, so Nikic and his dad had to improvise.

“Previously, Nikic was riding upright all the time,” Nik Nikic said. “But after an hour or so in the saddle, he would get stiffness in his lower back and butt. This obviously wouldn’t suffice for an Iron-distance race, so we had to get creative.”

Nikic rides a Ventum GS1 gravel bike —the wider wheels offer greater stability for him— and has tried numerous after-market clip-on aero bars, but nothing gave him the width and stack he needed to feel safe while riding.

Undeterred, Nik Nikic began ordering pieces of piping and McGuyvering them into a variety of aero extensions right in the family’s garage.

“Eventually, we arrived at the position Nikic has now with the homemade aero setup,” said Nik Nikic. “And using the 1% better method, we started the bars very high and almost upright and then decreased the stack little by little until Nikic is in his current position, which is almost a true ‘aero’ fit.”

This position allows Nikic to comfortably and safely brave the winds of the notorious Queen K highway that is the bike course of the Ironman World Champs while drinking and eating - and keeping his butt from going numb.

Repetition Makes Perfect

The best way for Nikic to be successful at whatever he puts his mind to is to get familiar with whatever he wants to overcome.

The most difficult part of the bike course at the World Champs is the climb to the town of Hawi, which is the bike turnaround in the northern part of the island. It is a steady yet unrelenting climb known for aggressive crosswinds.

Nikic and Grieb, who are already in Kona at the time we spoke to them, have been riding the climb to Hawi nearly every day to learn all of its twists and turns.

When asked how he feels about the climb, Nikic simply said “fine.” He’s never one to exaggerate or feign dramatic, he simply tackles every challenge with a calm ferocity that other athletes would do well to adopt.

Nikic’ main goal for the race is to inspire other people with Down Syndrome to push their limits - and to finish before the 17-hour cutoff, of course.

“My girlfriend is coming to watch me race and I can’t wait to give her a kiss at the end,” Nikic said. “On race day, I’ll be ready to rock, baby.”

Nikic’ race number is 117 and you can track him beginning at 6:27 a.m. HST on Thursday, October 6.

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Kristin Jenny
Freelance Contributor

Kristin Jenny is an elite triathlete based near Boulder, Colorado. Although most of her time is spent in aerobars somewhere in the mountains, she finds time to enjoy eating decadent desserts, hiking with her husband and dog, and a good true crime podcast.