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Like every other competitor in last weekend’s Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Chris Nikic had moments when he struggled mightily.
Completing a triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run is no easy task for anyone. It’s especially difficult when mid-afternoon temperatures top 90 degrees, the humidity is a muggy 85 percent, and it feels like you’re breathing through a straw. But Nikic is a unique kind of athlete, fueled by an enormous amount of determination, purpose, and the belief that anything is possible.
Late last night, after battling fatigue, dehydration, heat, wind, and moments of self-doubt, the special needs athlete from Florida became the first individual with Down syndrome to finish the 140.6-mile world championship race in Hawaii.
With help of his volunteer guide, Dan Grieb, Nikic completed the race in 16 hours, 31 minutes and 27 seconds, finishing to a cascade of cheering fans, many of whom returned to the finish line long after Chelsea Sodaro won the women’s professional race in 8:33:46. Sodaro made sure to be there, too, alongside Ironman legend Mark Allen, a six-time winner of the race, to experience the heart-warming, tear-inducing moment.
When Nikic crossed the finish line, he jumped into the arms of Grieb, who was at his side the entire way. They were tethered together on the open-water swim, in the choppy water of the Pacific Ocean. They rode side-by-side on the hot and windy bike course from Kona out to the remote town of Hawi and back along the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. They jogged and walked stride-for-stride on the 26.2-mile out-and-back course, to the Natural Energy Laboratory and back, to the seaside finish, a stone’s throw from where it all began.
Amid the crowd’s roar and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” blaring on the sound system, Nikic marveled in the moment as he saw his finish time posed on a digital display board and then was greeted by his girlfriend Adrienne Bunn, his dad, Nik, and numerous other family members and supporters. All of this was an incredible way to celebrate his 23rd birthday, which Nikic did by not only finishing the grueling race, but by stunning the already weepy fans by presenting Bunn, a Special Olympics triathlete, with a promise ring.
A Heartful Highlight
It was an amazing finish to a challenging day that began at 6:27 a.m. local time and finished at 10:58 p.m. Given the harsh conditions, Nikic’s splits were impressive — 1:42 for the swim, 8:05 for the bike, and 6:29 for the run. He finished 2,265th place out of 2,314 competitors on the day, but at the finish line late Thursday night, he was No. 1 in everyone’s heart.
“This is something that changes perceptions for every parent worldwide with children with Down syndrome,” said longtime Ironman finish-line announcer, Mike Reilly. “Now they all know one thing for sure – anything is possible.”
Nikic’s resounding effort was one of the biggest highlights for the first Ironman World Championship, as it returned to Kona for the first time since 2019. The championship race was postponed in 2020 and again in 2021 because of COVID-19, and eventually the 2021 race was moved to St. George, Utah, last spring.
Other age-group highlights included 78-year-old Cherie Gruenfeld of Cathedral City, California, winning her 14th Ironman age-group world title in 16:20:07, and the 17:58 finish of Team James — 57-year-old Beth James, of Crested Butte, Colorado — who towed and pushed her 26-year-old daughter, Liza James, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2004 car accident that rendered her nonverbal and unable to walk.
Because of so many backlogged qualifiers, the race was split into two days this year, with professional women and age-group women racing on Thursday, along with physically challenged athletes, hand-cycle competitors, and competitors from several men’s age-group divisions. The men’s pro race and the remainder of the men’s age-group divisions will compete on October 8.
“I Want To Open Doors.”
Although he had been involved in a lot of sports growing up, Nikic’s triathlon journey started four years ago with a much shorter triathlon at the Special Olympics event in Florida. When that went well, he and his dad focused on something bigger, something they knew could change his life. He knew that if he could do big things, maybe one day he would be able to fulfill his ultimate dream of living independently, getting married, and having a family of his own.
Nikic has parlayed his triathlon success into his 1% Better Foundation as a platform to show what is truly possible, a foray into motivational speaking as a means to help others with Down syndrome. He and Grieb both competed in the race wearing bright orange 1% Better shirts.
“I want to be an example for other people with Down syndrome. I want to open doors,” Nikic said previously. “And I want to raise awareness. Anyone who sees people with Down syndrome: don’t look away or walk away.
In 2020, at age 21, he became the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman triathlon. For this accomplishment, Nikic was awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance as part of the 2021 ESPY Awards.
After that race, he was invited to participate in the 45th Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. To prepare, Nikic had been training three to four hours a day, six days a week, including strength training and yoga. It’s not an easy thing to do for anyone, but especially for Nikic, who suffers from reduced muscle tension (muscular hypotonia).
But Nikic has been overcoming obstacles his entire life. Nikic was born with several birth defects that affected his heart function, hearing, and balance, requiring several serious surgeries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Down syndrome is a condition in which a baby is born with an extra copy of a chromosome. That changes how an infant’s body and brain develop, which can cause both chronic mental and physical challenges for the individual.
At 5 months old, Nikic endured open-heart surgery. He was so weak and had such poor balance that he did not walk on his own until he was 4. To keep him from choking, his family fed him baby food until he was 6. When he finally learned to run, it took him months to discover how to swing his arms at his side, instead of holding them straight above his head. It was a long journey from a challenging boyhood to the Ironman World Championship, but Nikic has always been up to the challenge.
“The second Nikic gets in the water for the start of the race, people all over the world with intellectual disabilities have won and become part of the larger endurance community,” Grieb said before the race.
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