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Maitland’s Chris Nikic, the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon, is about to receive yet another honor to add to his growing resume, and it’s arguably his greatest so far — the ESPN Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.
The award will be presented as part of the 2021 ESPYS, held in New York and airing live on ABC Saturday at 8 p.m. Nikic, who was a finalist for the Orlando Sentinel’s 2020 Central Floridian of the Year, will be giving an acceptance speech.
“We’re excited about the people he’s going to meet,” said dad Nik Nikic, who was in New York with his family for the event. (Chris was napping after a long-delayed flight.) “You know, the who’s who of the sports world will be here. And I was a big basketball fan, and so to us, this is probably the most amazing thing that’s happened yet.”
The award is named for former North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, whose team defied long odds to win the 1983 NCAA Division I national title. Valvano was known for his exuberance and inspirational speeches, including at the 1993 ESPYS, when he was terminally ill with cancer. He died two months later.
His motto: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” They are words Chris Nikic has lived by.
Last November, at age 21, Nikic finished a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run at Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds — despite a fall and being bitten by ants. The grueling event won him an invitation to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, this October.
He is also a nominee in the ESPY’s “Best Athlete with a Disability, Men’s Sports” category.
“Chris’s unique, inspirational story personifies the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance,” said Rob King, senior vice president and editor-at-large for ESPN. “We are honored to present him with this award and look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”
There’s plenty ahead — and a lot of naysayers behind. Nikic had his first surgery, to repair two holes in his heart, at 5 months old. He still needed a walker at 3. He attended seven schools from kindergarten to fifth grade, when his parents finally found a small private campus willing to take an inclusive approach to his education. At every stage, misguided teachers, doctors and administrators told him and his parents not to bother trying.
“Lots of people told me what I couldn’t do,” Nikic said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel last year. “It’s hard when people are told they can’t do something. But we don’t tolerate that.”
As soon as he returns to Central Florida, he’ll start the most intense portion of his Ironman training in preparation for Kona.
“The goal now [will be] to get at least 1% Better Every Day for the next 100 days to be ready for Hawaii,” he posted last week on Instagram before leaving for New York. “It’s time to party in NYC.”