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Trailblazing triathlete isn’t letting Down syndrome prevent him from becoming an Ironman

Chris Nikic, left, and his Special Olympics partner, Dan Grieb, cross the finish line of Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images for Ironman)

“Tomorrow I wake up and go from being a boy with Down syndrome to an Ironman,” Chris Nikic said Friday on social media.

By proceeding to complete the famously arduous challenge Saturday, the 21-year-old Florida resident did not just prove his worth as a swimmer, cyclist and marathon runner — he cemented himself as a trailblazer.

Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full, 140.6-mile Ironman Triathlon, making it through an event in Panama City Beach, Fla., in 16 hours 46 minutes 9 seconds. That was good enough to get him a listing in Guinness World Records and a salute from the Special Olympics, with which he has been involved for years.

“We are incredibly proud of Chris and the work he has put in to achieve this monumental goal,” Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock said in a statement. “He’s become a hero to athletes, fans, and people across Florida and around the world. He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

As if Nikic’s task in completing a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile cycling leg and a 26.22-mile run were not tough enough, he had to fend off an ant attack during a nutrition break, per the Special Olympics. He also came off his bike twice and had a bloody leg to show for it.

Nikic’s journey to an unprecedented feat began with a father who did not want his son’s condition to be a hindrance.

“I was concerned because after high school and after graduation a lot of kids with Down syndrome become isolated and just start living a life of isolation,” Nik Nikic told the Panama City News Herald. “I said, ‘Look, let’s go find him something to get him back into the world and get him involved,’ so we started looking around and we were fortunate that at the same time Special Olympics Florida started this triathlon program, and I thought, ‘What a great way to get him started, get him in shape and get him to make some friends.’ ”

To help keep Nikic motivated and in acknowledgment of the fact that “Chris doesn’t like pain,” his father said he devised a “1 percent plan” that called for incremental but regular improvement.

In a motivational speech last year in which he discussed the benefits of that plan, Nikic said some of the obstacles he had to overcome were the facts that he loves “food, video games and my couch” and that “everything is harder for me to learn.” Nikic also touched on some of the physical hardships he has faced, including open-heart surgery at 5 months old, not learning how to walk until he was 4 and major ear surgeries when he was 17.

By May, Nikic was able to complete a half-triathlon — earning recognition as the first person with Down syndrome to do so — and qualify for the full race at Panama City Beach. It was close Saturday, as he nearly missed the event’s 17-hour cutoff, but Nikic got to the finish line in time. State race officials required Nikic to be tethered to his Special Olympics training partner for safety during the swimming and running segments, and his companion rode closely behind for the cycling portion, but Nikic had to make the same effort as every other competitor.

“YES, I did the work but I had angels helping me,” he said afterward on social media. “God surrounded me with Angels. Best part of all. New family and friends.

“All about awareness and inclusion. Awareness for Down syndrome and Special Olympics. Inclusion for all of us with all of you.”

View this post on Instagram

IRONMAN. Goal set and achieved. Time to set a new and BIGGER Goal for 2021. Whatever it is the strategy is the same. 1% Better every day. YES, I did the work but I had angels helping me. God surrounded me with Angels. Best part of all. New family and friends. All about awareness and inclusion. Awareness for Down Syndrome and Special Olympics. Inclusion for all of us with all of you. I’m sorry for not responding personally to all your messages. It’s amazing but overwhelming because I got 33K new followers and messages since yesterday. I will try and catch up. If you want to support my mission for Down Syndrome and Special Olympics go to my website because 100% of the donations go to my charities. I achieved my goal and now I want to help others like me. Thank you to @ironmantri and @im_foundation for making it possible. Thank you @specialolympics @specialolympicsfl for starting the triathlon program. Thank you @rodsracing for giving a home to babies like me. I will be thanking so many more people over the coming days. But I must start with the 3 Angels who trained with me and did the race with me. Dan, Jenn and Carlos. #inclusion

A post shared by Chris Nikic (@chrisnikic) on

“The opportunities you have created for others around the world through this journey you embarked upon, is immeasurable,” the Ironman Triathlon’s official account tweeted at Nikic on Saturday. “Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your remarkable life story and we can’t wait to see what you achieve next.”

Shane Facteau, the Ironman Group’s chief operating officer, told the News Herald that Nikic has been a big help to others as well, particularly in keeping spirits up during a pandemic that has made it difficult to stage large-group participation events such as triathlons.

“I can say on an individual level that he has had a huge impact on our team,” Facteau said. “It’s been a rough year in a lot of ways. We had to move a lot of races, and I think he may not understand this but the positive impact he has had on individuals in our organization has been tremendous. It’s so good to see the team be around him and feel the positive energy.

“He’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. He’s putting himself out there, and that’s something people need to understand,” Facteau continued. “He’s taking the opportunity, and there’s always risk in that there’s the chance of success or failure. We love to see people of all shapes and sizes do that.”

Having reached this particular mountaintop, Nikic said on social media that next up for him was to “help others like me.”

He also has some longer-term goals, as he told Runner’s World last month.

“My dream is to buy my own house, buy my own car, [and] get a smoking hot blond wife from Minnesota,” Nikic said.

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