Maitland triathlete 1st with Down syndrome to attempt Ironman

Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel

At dawn Saturday, when Chris Nikic plunges into the Gulf of Mexico for the start of Ironman Florida, the 21-year-old from Maitland will already have made history. He’ll be the first athlete with Down syndrome to compete in an Ironman — the brutal 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run strung together in a single day.

Making it to the finish line in the 17-hour time limit would be a supreme accomplishment for any athlete — the day can come with rip currents, jelly fish stings, battering winds, wilting heat and flat tires. But for Nikic, the journey here has been a mix of miracles and unrelenting determination.

“The doctors and experts said I couldn’t do anything,” he explains in a Zoom interview from Panama City, where the race is held. “So I said, ‘Doctor! Experts! You need to stop doing this to me. You’re wrong!’”

His father, Nik Nikic, says much the same.

“From the time he was born, we were told by everyone that he’d never do anything or amount to anything or be able to accomplish anything [beyond] being able to tie his own shoes,” his dad says. “And we believed them for the longest time.”

Chris 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 school willing to take an inclusive approach.

He began swimming as a kid in his parents’ back-yard pool and at 16 tried his first “sprint” triathlon — a dramatically shorter version of the Ironman. But he lost two years of training because of repeated surgeries to reconstruct his ear canals, which, in people with Down syndrome, are prone to chronic infections.

When he restarted, he could barely swim a single lap or run 100 yards without stopping.

But in January 2018, Nikic signed up for a newly launched triathlon program through Special Olympics Florida. It began with a series of group training sessions on the bike, on the running trails and in the open water. Two local race organizations, Epic Sports and Sommer Sports, soon included Special Olympics divisions within their triathlons.

At one of those open-water training sessions, a 1-kilometer swim at an Orlando lake, first-timers who make the distance sign their names on a wall.

“Chris world champ,” Nikic wrote. This led to a discussion with his dad, who’s also a swimmer. They talked about doing triathlons and, eventually, an Ironman.

“I realized, ‘Why not? Why can’t he do an Ironman?’” Nik says. “So I gave him a piece of paper ... and I said, ‘Why don’t you write down your dreams? Tell me what you want out of your life.’”

His son didn’t have to ponder long. He wants his own house, he wrote. He wants his own car. And he wants to marry “a smokin' hot blonde from Minnesota like my mom.”

Nik insists the “smokin' hot blonde” is conceptual, not literal, but his son has repeated it at least once a day during the two years of training since. Its greater purpose, Nik says, is to help his son learn to set goals and work toward them incrementally.

“We discovered by accident a lot of things that we didn’t understand about how he learns, and how we need to focus his attention on one thing at a time, and how we need to break things down into really simple components so that he can master them,” Nik says. “And then we can build one component on top of the other.”

For cycling — a process that requires balance, pedaling, changing gears, using brakes and steering — it meant mapping out a 1-mile circuit in their neighborhood, marking segments in sidewalk chalk and having Nikic shift and brake at designated marks. The process took six months, but then it accelerated rapidly.

Soon after, Nikic became so proficient on the bike that he outpaced his first coach. Special Olympics linked him with Dan Grieb, a Central Florida real-estate agent and Ironman veteran. Grieb had never met anyone with Down syndrome.

“Being introduced to this family has been one of the honors of a lifetime,” he said. “Chris has actually outperformed my expectations for him. When we first started ... he didn’t properly move his arms through the water. But what was really impressive is that he never gave up. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t get scared. He just kept going.”

In fact, because of the coronavirus pandemic, which canceled the half-Ironman he had planned to do in May, Nikic and his coach did a course on their own in Clermont. He finished in a respectable 8 hours, 25 minutes.

In Panama City on Saturday, race officials will require that Nikic be tethered to Grieb in the ocean for safety reasons. Grieb will also ride behind Nikic on the bike course and stay near him on the run. But it’s only to guide and encourage — not to pull or propel him forward in any way.

Nikic still has to do all the work on his own. And he still has to do it within the same 17-hour time limit as everyone else.

“Because this is a first for us, we had to work out some logistics,” says Beth Atnip, Ironman’s vice president of global operations. “But I’ve met Chris, and he is so impressive. His heart is so big. And I think this will open doors for a lot of other folks who maybe just thought it was impossible.”

Nikic graduated from high school this year with a modified degree and is taking more classes to get his full diploma, and he’s still figuring out what he can do to make a living. But he already has given dozens of motivational speeches, including one before an audience of about 1,000.

Most importantly, his dad says, he has a fulfilling life.

“Kids with Down syndrome, typically, when they graduate from high school, they start living a life of isolation. They don’t go on to college; they don’t get a job,” Nik says. "Any level of inclusion they had, which was minimal, falls off a cliff. But Chris now trains six, seven days a week with friends. He goes and meets them at the lake, he goes to the track and runs with them, they come to our neighborhood and ride bikes with them. He calls them every night, and they take his phone call ... and they invite him to their homes. The greatest gift that Chris has gotten in all this is the gift of belonging.”


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