Update: On Nov. 7, Chris Nikic crossed the line at Ironman Florida with 15 minutes to spare and achieved his goal.
It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning and Chris Nikic is awake, preparing for his long run. He eats a quick breakfast, tightens the laces on his royal blue running shoes, and heads out well before sunrise. Flanked by a small squad of running buddies, Nikic’s stride is short but assured, as he presses on for three hours, clicking off 13 miles before most other people open their eyes for the day.
In many ways, Nikic’s routine isn’t different from anyone else training for an Ironman. His weekends are packed with 70-mile bike rides and early-morning long runs. He logs laps in the pool and spends countless hours in the gym, lifting weights and perfecting his pull-ups. However, Nikic, 20, also has Down syndrome. And his training is different in at least one way: He’s working to become the first person with the cognitive disability to complete an Ironman. He’ll make his attempt at the Florida race due to take place this Saturday, Nov. 7.
Nikic’s father, Nik, planted the idea in his son’s head after Chris completed a sprint race and later finished a local 1-kilometer open-water swim near their home in Orlando, Florida. This led to an awakening of sorts about Chris’s potential. “For 18 years, we accepted the conventional wisdom that Chris was ‘special’ and therefore had lots of limitations,” explained the older Nikic. “But then we decided to treat him as ‘gifted’ instead, and we have discovered that deep down inside, there really were these hidden gifts. Now we are helping him reach down and give him the opportunity to stretch himself.”
The younger Nikic has since completed five sprints, two Olympic-distance races, and a half-Ironman (staged by his local tri club when his targeted race was canceled due to the pandemic). While Nikic has physical limitations, including poor balance and low muscle tone, he has found ways to adapt and adjust, like riding a flat handlebar bike and not clipping in to prevent possible falls. He’s also faced doubt from others who question his ability to finish an Ironman. “But I overcome that by doing things they don’t expect from me,” he said.
Nikic trains up to six hours a day, six times a week, with a guide, Dan Grieb, who will race in Florida with him. His goal is to finish before the swim, bike, and run cut-offs and cross the finish line under 17 hours. “I do think Chris will be able to complete the Ironman,” Grieb said. “It will be a challenge to him and tap into energy sources and mental processes that he never has before, but that’s what any other athlete will go through.”
Beyond the finish line glory, those close to Nikic believe that the accomplishment will enable him to better navigate the intricacies of independent living, from maintaining a long-term relationship and buying a house and car to holding down a job. “These races are preparation for life,” Grieb said, who noted that Nikic has brought his local triathlon community closer too as they’ve bonded over supporting his journey. “Ironman athletes tend to be a little selfish and wrapped up in our in- dividual training, but Chris has united us. We need him just as much as he needs us.”