Benjamin Hochman: The story of the Ironman with Down syndrome — and the history he made

A spectator cheers on Chris Nikic as he approaches the transition from the bike portion to the run portion of Ironman Florida on Nov. 7 in Panama City Beach. Nikic becamee the first Ironman finisher with Down syndrome.

When he did it, all 16 hours and 46 minutes and nine seconds of physical and psychological hell, his father told him: “You woke up this morning as a boy with Down syndrome. You’re going home as an Ironman.”

Chris Nikic. He’s 21. This is the best “Florida man” story you’ll ever hear.

He made the unrealistic his reality. The native of Maitland, Florida, believed in the unbelievable. On Nov. 7 in Panama City Beach, he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. So that’s swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles ... and then running a marathon.

Chris Nikic is not just an Ironman — he’s a superhero.

Somewhere, Cal Ripken surely is in awe. Somewhere, Tony Stark marvels. And as the story spread across the country on Sunday, the superhero in tights (a swimming body suit, of course) stirred strangers.

In Town and Country, Mike Griffin told the story of Chris Nikic to his son, Jack.

“It is inspirational for him and makes him feel good that other young men like him are meeting their goals,” said Griffin, whose son also has Down syndrome. “I think that was the best thing about it. It made him smile and feel confident and happy about it ... . It’s just a wonderful story and hopefully it’s eye-opening for folks to not put limitations on their own kids.”

In Ferguson, Special Olympian Daxton Miller exclaimed: “I’m happy he did it!”

Miller, 42, has excelled in so many of the sports he has tried, from tennis to basketball to golf to even horseback riding.

“I’m happy he did it,” Miller continued, “because he did his best.”

Nik Nikic, Chris’ beaming father, once shared his son’s journey on a YouTube interview with Ironman athlete Bob Babbitt. As the story goes, Chris Nikic actually wasn’t that active until a few years ago. Chris underwent some surgeries that left him sedentary and isolated at home.


So Chris’ parents, Nik and Patty, got their son involved in the Special Olympics Florida and a new triathlon program. They began to see positive perks in their son. Accelerated development. Working out brought out so much more Chris than they thought was inside the boy. He ultimately accomplished a half-Ironman, with the help of his guide, Dan Grieb. Chris even began giving public motivational speeches.

He created a mantra: “Get 1% better every day.” They made a website with the “1% challenge.” It was all just so powerful and beautiful.

Extraordinary, really.

Then came the big race on Saturday. Grieb completed the entire Ironman alongside Chris.

“Watching the two of them cross the finish line together was one of the best and greatest things of my life,” Nik Nikic said by phone Sunday night. “Up until (Saturday), he was getting a couple hundred messages per day from people around the world who are inspired by his journey. A lot of the messages are from families like us, with kids with special needs or Down syndrome and how inspired they were for their kids. And so it’s touched Chris and touched us quite a bit.

“Since (Nov. 7), we have just completely been overwhelmed. For instance, his Instagram account went from 21,000 followers to 61,000 in one day. You know, thousands and thousands of messages, direct messages. He’s reading them, we’re looking at stuff, but we can see that it’s touched a lot of people around the world like us and others. When you have someone who has so little that is expected of them, and yet they achieve so much? It has a way of impacting the rest of us in a way that makes us reflective of our own abilities and thankful of our own gifts.

“I think in many ways, he helps people to realize that they can do more. Because he lets them use him as a mirror to look inwardly and say, ‘Look, if he can do so much with so little, what can I do with what I’ve got?’ And I think that’s the message that’s resonating. Because it’s not about him — it’s about how he makes other people feel about themselves.”

Chris Nikic’s story spread among the staff at Special Olympics Missouri. As explained by Brian Neuner, chief development and marketing officer, “We really focus on the ability, not the disability. And so, this was just an amazing example of where his ability was realized, even though he even has a disability. We really focus on programs that are geared toward helping people move forward and advance — progress can be measured in so many different ways. Obviously, an Ironman, that’s an extreme accomplishment.”

Neuner loves the camaraderie of Special Olympians. And even though, for instance, Daxton Miller and Chris Nikic have never met, they already have a bond. Same for Jack Griffin, who has participated in numerous Special Olympic sports and in Albert Pujols’ annual basketball game for St. Louisans with Down syndrome.

“The pandemic has been very difficult on athletes across the nation,” Neuner said, “because they’re dealing with isolation and depression and they’re not able to be involved in the programs they normally are. So, this story comes at a good time, because it’s an example for everyone, not just people with special needs.”

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