“Chris Nikic, you are an Ironman”, you are an Ironman. He heard him screaming, as Chris Nikic crossed that finish line, after 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds spent swimming, cycling, running. He was happy. Very tired and happy. The fatigue and hours of training came to his mind. But, also, the sadness of loneliness and the bitterness of the many “No, you can’t”.
Those who often hear people born with Down syndrome, like him. At the age of 21, Nikic entered with honor into the history of sport becoming the first Down’s syndrome athlete to finish an Ironman, the race of crazy people who believe in it. Like Alex Zanardi, world recordman among the Paralympics. Like Rudy Garcia Tolson, American like Chris, the first to finish one among those who are amputees complete with legs. Like Alberto Ceriani, another Italian, the first in the world to succeed among the blind, led by Carlo Pellegri. In short, Chris stands there among the greats.
Ironman is the toughest test of one of the hardest disciplines of the sport, triathlon. You swim in the open sea for 3.8 kilometers, then you get on a bike and pedal for 180 kilometers, then you run a marathon. Chris succeeded after just over a year of training together with many friends and a coach who has become a friend and teacher. A challenge considered impossible for those born with Down syndrome. Few believed in him even among those who know him and are close to him.
“Objective reached. Now a new and bigger one for 2021. Whatever it is, the mental approach is the same: 1% improvement every day. Yes, I succeeded, but I had angels to help me. God surrounded me with angels. The best part of each of us. A new family and new friends. Thanks to awareness and inclusion. Awareness for Down’s syndrome and Special Olympics”: Chris Nikic wrote it in a long post on his Instagram profile thinking about the future. That goal is not just a victory for him, as his dad explains: “It serves to affirm that you can live a life of inclusion and normality, as well as being an example for others, young and old, with their families facing so many difficulties, showing that no goal is too far away”.
To understand what Chris Nikic did, you need to take a step back, long before that race in Panama City Beach, Florida. You have to go back to his childhood. Because his path to become an Ironman goes from there, from the difficulties Chris Nikic found and how he was able to overcome them in the weeks following his birth. At 5 months, Chris Nikic underwent open heart surgery. In the years that followed, he was always very weak and had a poor balance. He began to walk on his own after turning four years old. When Chris Nikic learned to run, it took months before he realized that he could lower his arms and swing them along his hips instead of holding them straight over his head. He also had difficulty swallowing and eating.
Dad Nik and Mom Patty had to get him to seven different elementary schools, looking for the right one. Each time, they heard about him by focusing on the limits rather than the possibilities. Even now Chris remembers him like this: “I felt isolated and excluded”. Sport helped him get out of the tunnel of sadness and loneliness. He started to run. And then to swim or play basketball. All thanks to Special Olympics (SO), a huge organization that deals with games and sports for those with intellectual and/or relational disabilities. Over the years, Special Olympics has become a reference point for the recreational and sports activities of people with intellectual disabilities, including people with Down syndrome, and is present throughout the world.
Chris participated in the activities of Special Olympics and became very passionate about the sport. When he was about 15 years old, his parents took him to a nearby parking lot and let him ride a bicycle for the first time. It took him six months to ride more than 30 meters without stopping or falling, but then it became one of his favorite sports. Chris Nikic particularly liked triathlon, however, because he put together the sports, he loved the most: running, cycling and swimming. Sometimes he couldn’t participate in races or training even for a long time. Like when he had to undergo a series of ear operations some time ago. But this made him more determined again. Because Chris Nikic had a goal: “I have to succeed, I want to become an Ironman”. He was sure of it, if he could do it, it meant he could achieve any goal.
To try it, he needed a lot of training. Always with that idea: “1% more every day”. A group of friends from Special Olympics came to his aid and with them he improved his endurance day after day in running, cycling and in the water. Above all it was his coach, Dan Grieb, one of SO’s volunteers, who prepared him for such a hard task. They started at dawn with almost 30 kilometers of running and over 100 pedaling. Dan also helped him mentally to know how to measure the effort, follow the wind, relax by swimming in the ocean with maybe some jellyfish around him. Nik, his daddy, was confident, but he didn’t want to be too confident, maybe not to create too many expectations or a big disappointment in Chris: “With all that training, I was sure he would make it. Unless there was a problem.
And something can always go wrong. And, in fact, there have been difficulties. But, and this is the great thing, Chris was able to overcome those crises while he was swimming or cycling or running, with Dan at his side pushing him. He repeated: “One more step, two steps, three steps. One, two and three. Again, come on. Remember Alex Zanardi’s “5 seconds rule”: when you think you can’t do it anymore, close your eyes, think “5 seconds more” and go on. Chris Nikic made it in less than 17 hours, as it must be in the Ironman. With these partials: 1h 54″ 39′ in swimming, 8h 12″ 37′ in cycling and 6h 18″ 48′ in marathon. Ironman numbers, even if, in the end, they are not the ones that count.
Chris Nikic made it, that’s the most important thing. One step, then another and another. One, two, three. Onward like that. Chris knows that it wasn’t just about finishing that crazy race and becoming an Ironman, but about showing himself and everyone what he could achieve in the future. A home, his home. Independence. A “kind and beautiful” wife like his mother. Because she was right, that day she said to Nik: ” You’ll see Daddy, my dreams will win”.