Dreaming Big Got This Triathlete Across the Finish Line

On November 7, 2020, Chris Nikic ran straight into the history books as the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman. This is what the experience taught him.

by Julia Savacool Executive Editor

Say this for Chris Nikic: The man does not give up. At mile 40 of the biking portion of his Florida Ironman race last winter, Nikic got attacked by fire ants, setting off severe swelling and a burning sensation that spread up his leg. Ten miles later, the 21-year-old from Maitland, FL, crashed his bike, resulting in bleeding and pain that might have sent another mortal packing for home.

Instead, Nikic got a hug from his dad on the sidelines and forged on, becoming the first person with Down syndrome to ever accomplish the extraordinary physical feat of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then running 26.2 miles (that’s a whole marathon tacked onto the end of 10 hours of heart-pounding exercise)—all in 16 hours and 46 minutes, with 14 minutes to spare before the official race cutoff.

Chris Nikic casual
Courtesy of the subject

Nikic’s feat rocked the sports world—and the chronic world, too, elevating him to iconic status (and a Guinness Book of World Records entry) for his steadfast refusal to be defined by his condition. “What drives me is my dream to be independent and get married and show others like me that they can do it, too,” he says. “The best thing I can do for others like me is be an example.”

Seemingly overnight, Nikic went from amateur athlete to internet sensation, with requests for TV appearances and motivational speaking events. On his website, Nikic posted a video of a presentation he gave. “I could use my obstacles as an excuse to limit me,” he says in it. “I don’t do excuses. I work hard.”

Training for an Ironman is a grueling schedule for anyone but doing it with Down syndrome takes a special commitment and determination. For better or worse, Nikic has had a lifetime’s worth of practice committing to hard things. (See: open-heart surgery at five months old, a struggle to walk until age 4, and inability to eat solid food until age 5, due to health complications.)

As Nikic gears up to take on another race this fall (the totally daunting, famously hard Kona Ironman in Hawaii), we asked him for his secrets to making his dreams come true. Turns out, there are no shortcuts.

Chris Nikic and dad
Chris Nikic and his father. Photo courtesy of subject.

Ironman Chris Nikic’s Top 10 Tips for Doing Hard Things:

1. Dream Big. “My dad taught me to always remember that ‘My DREAMS are bigger than my Fake Pain.’ This quote always reminds me that I need to focus on my dreams. There were several times during the Florida Ironman where I was in pain and wanted to quit, but I just focused on my dreams and kept going. That’s also what I did to get through my training.”

2. Have a Mantra. “'1% Better' is a strategy my dad used in his company, and he decided to teach me. I started with 1 lap swim, 1 mile bike, and 1 lap run. Now I am up to 300 each. Being 1% better means one more today, one more tomorrow, so by October 9th, I will complete the Kona Hawaii Ironman Championship race.”

3. Move at Your Own Pace. “I did not do anything crazy. I just got 1% better every day for two years and I went from couch to Ironman. Anyone who wants to accomplish something great, you just have to be willing to be consistent for a couple of years and you can do amazing things.”

4. Be Strategic. “Sometimes I am just tired and I don’t want to [train]. I negotiate with my dad and he makes it easy for me. Or sometimes we just skip it and then come back stronger.”

5. Find a Partner. “I have many people who will train with me, which makes everything fun. It’s about me being better today than I was yesterday.”

6. Commit to the Finish Line. “The hardest part of the race was mile 10-13 on the run. The pain was really bad. Everything hurt. I was ready to quit, but my dad asked me, what’s going to win, my fake pain or my dream? I said my dream, so I kept going and my angels took me to the finish line.”

7. Seek a Larger Purpose. “What drives me to do this is my dream to be independent. The best thing I can do for others like me is be an example.”

8. Stay Humble. “We can do anything if we are willing to work hard and get 1% better each day. We are capable of doing more than one thing.”

9. Set New Goals. “This year I will learn to drive my own car, but my next big goal is to do Ironman Hawaii. I also want to break 80 in golf. In 2022, I want to do the Special Olympics USA games. In 2023, I want to do the world games in Germany.”

10. Never Give Up. “The easiest thing to do is quit. The hardest thing to do is just keep improving every day. I used my dream to keep me going. So, if you want to do something big, then start by writing down a BIG dream and look at it every day. Never take your eye off your dream.”

Julia Savacool
Meet Our Writer
Julia Savacool

Julia has been covering health, fitness, and wellness as a writer and editor for more than two decades. At HeathCentral, she heads up new content development and produces five newsletters. She is the former Articles Director of Fitness magazine and Deputy Editor at Marie Claire. Savacool’s stories have won the United Nations Friends of the World Food Program Media Award, the NARAL Pro-Choice Media Award, and the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women Humanitarian Award for domestic violence coverage.