Nikic will receive the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2021 ESPYs on July 10
There were a few times Chris Nikic wanted to quit. Like when he accidentally stood in a fire ant mound, and the ants went all the way up his legs and into his pants. Or like when he crashed his bike and scraped his knee and shoulder at mile 50. After that, he started feeling a little hesitant and scared and slowed down.
Then at mile 80, his father, Nik Nikic, reminded his son of his mission.
“There’s a battle going on,” Nik told Chris. “There’s the pain and the dream. What is going to win?”
“The dream,” Chris replied.
Nikic wouldn’t quit. The next 32 miles went by fast, but his whole body was hurting during the run. With 13 miles to go, his father asked the same question: “What is going to win: the pain or the dream?”
Nikic’s answer is always the dream, which is why he overcame one of the most challenging physical feats in the world—a 2.4-mile open water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run—to become the first person with Down syndrome to complete an IRONMAN.
Nikic’s incredible accomplishment on Nov. 7, 2020, in Panama City Beach, Florida, not only put him in the Guinness Book of World Records, but it proved to him and others that he could do anything in pursuit of his dream: to live a life of independence and have a wife, a family, a house, and a car.
“If I could finish [an IRONMAN], then I could get a wife,” he says with a smile.
Nikic, 21, had open heart surgery when he was 5 months old and couldn’t walk on his own until he was 4. He was often told what he couldn’t do instead of what he could do, which filled his head with limits rather than possibilities. But he loved sports and was inspired to play them just like his sister, Jacky Nikic, who played basketball at Dartmouth College and professionally overseas.
Chris was 9 when he swam for the first time, though he didn’t learn how to swim strokes until he was 16. His parents taught him how to ride a bike when he was 15, though it took him months to make it 100 feet. He competed in his first sprint triathlon—a half-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run—at age 16. He did a couple more before undergoing four major ear surgeries over the next two years, which sidelined him. He restarted training at 18 when the Special Olympics Florida added a triathlon program. He and three others joined. The team grew to 10 over the next year and a half, and in that time, Nikic completed five sprint triathlons, finishing last in every single one.
“Chris was the least likely to succeed in the group,” says Nik, whose family lives in the Orlando, Florida, area. “And then a little over a year later, he finishes an IRONMAN.”
The plan to train for and compete in an IRONMAN was hatched in October 2019 at Lake Cane in Orlando, the site of a daily 1K swim, 500 meters out and back. The free swim has a cult following among open water swimmers and triathletes in Florida, and thousands of people have done it. As a rite of passage for finishing, swimmers sign their names on the house of Lucky Meisenheimer, who hosts the swim. When Chris signed, he wrote “Chris World Champ.” Nik looked at his son and said, “Why not? Why can’t you be a world champ in something?” Then Chris looked at his dad, and they briefly brainstormed ideas until Nik suggested an IRONMAN, despite knowing nobody who had ever done one.
“And that’s how it started,” Nikic says. “We set the goal for a year later to do it.”
In November 2020, Chris conquered his first IRONMAN, finishing just under the 17-hour cutoff mark in a time of 16 hours, 46 minutes, 9 seconds while carrying the Down syndrome community on his shoulders.
Nik always cries when Chris does something amazing, but for some reason, he didn’t cry when his son crossed the finish line just before midnight.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve been faced with the notion that Chris was never going to be able to take care of himself, that he couldn’t do much,” Nik says, fighting back tears. “When he crossed the finish line, it was the first time that I thought to myself, ‘All those other parents like me and my wife can now look at their kids and be at peace that they can do anything, just like our little boy did. And so I think Chris put a lot of parents at ease that day.”
Says Chris, a member of Lake Gators Swim Club: “If I can do this race, then I can set the bar high for other kids to do it.”
Now Nikic is addicted to the competition and to proving to the world that opportunities for him are endless. He’s training for the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October. In November, he’ll run the New York City Marathon, and next year he’ll compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Before all of that, though, he’ll be honored with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2021 ESPYs on July 10.
He’s truly the embodiment of perseverance, inspiring others and spreading his message to be “1% better” every day in every aspect of life. Nik created the 1% better mantra in the corporate world—he owns Sales Optimizer, a sales transformation and consulting firm—and adapted the concept to his son.
“It starts with one push-up, one sit-up, and one squat,” Nik says. “And then just one more and just one more and just one more. Eighteen months later, he was at 200 [push-ups, sit-ups, and squats] per day. Now he’s at 380, and he’ll be at 500 by October.”
Chris did the same thing with swimming. He started with one lap and kept increasing by one each day until he could swim 10,000 yards. With biking and running, he started with one lap around the neighborhood, then two, then three until he could bike 120 miles and run 26.2.
“The whole 1% better system is around this concept of doing just one more,” Nik says. “We’ve taught him physically and mentally that he can always do one more. And when he’s ready to quit in a race at mile 10, we just say, ‘One more, buddy.’”
Although Nikic is his son’s head coach and comes up with the training regimen that’s centered around the 1% better system, Chris works with a trainer and a guide who are more experienced athletes. When Dan Grieb became Nikic’s race day guide in 2019, he had never met a person with Down syndrome, much less guided someone with the condition through an IRONMAN. But Grieb was a seasoned IRONMAN and had been searching to do something with his life that served a higher purpose. After competing for many years, Grieb wanted to help someone else do one. He’d heard of people being guides for blind athletes, but he couldn’t find anybody interested.
Then the Nikic family fell into his lap. Nik and Chris happened to walk in on the end of a local triathlon club meeting that Grieb was running. They were looking for a new guide because Chris had become too fast on the bike for his current one. He was looking “for someone really hungry who has a big heart and is faster than [him],” Grieb recalls. “It was a match made in heaven.”
Grieb describes himself as “very intense,” which made him scared. He had no experience guiding a person through an IRONMAN. “I work really hard. No laps off,” he says. “I don’t take it easy on anybody, so I was afraid that I would hurt Chris.”
He was also nervous because he initially didn’t know how to communicate with Nikic. The first time they swam together, Nikic kept saying, “Get out of here! Get out of here!” Grieb says. “I thought he didn’t like me and was telling me to leave.” Grieb asked Nik how to get Chris to like him. Nik said, “Just be yourself. Chris likes to train hard too.” As Grieb later learned, “get out of here” was actually a term of endearment and a form of banter. From then on, Grieb and Chris grew incredibly close.
“Now I’m Uncle Dan,” says Grieb, who also trains with Nikic a few times a week, especially when he gets into the longer workouts, like 40- to 50-mile bike rides.
As Nikic’s guide, Grieb is with him every step of the race. They’re tethered to each other during the swim to ensure that Nikic has enough space and is swimming in the right direction. Grieb rides next to him during the bike and jogs in step with him during the run to make sure he doesn’t go too fast and burn himself out. Grieb comes up with all types of strategies to make sure Nikic doesn’t stop or break down. They’ll talk about Nikic’s future wedding day and how pretty the sunrise is. He reminds Nikic to look at all the people wearing 1% Better T-shirts cheering him on. Nik estimates there were thousands of supporters lining the IRONMAN course in November, many of whom were athletes that came back to the finish line around midnight just to watch his son cross it.
The toughest part guiding Chris, Grieb says, is first and foremost his safety because a lot can happen on the course. “You could get stung by a jellyfish or drown,” Grieb says, noting that there was no way he could’ve prepared for that ant pile. “You could have cramps, crashes, heat stroke, all kinds of stuff.”
The second thing that weighs on him is helping Nikic prove that people with disabilities shouldn’t be discounted. “They’re often told that they can’t do much,” Grieb says. “This was their chance to have someone prove all the experts wrong and open the door to possibilities. Hundreds of parents reached out on social media to say, ‘Thank you for even being willing to run with Chris.’ Chris represents hope.”
Nikic’s impact is widely felt by his proud family to his friends with Down syndrome who are now starting to train for triathlons to the supportive and inclusive community he’s created. The local Special Olympics triathlon program has ballooned from four athletes to 50, which doesn't include the guides and able-bodied athletes who support them. As more people started to see what Nikic was doing, they wanted to join. Sometimes when he goes for long bike rides, 15 or 20 people will come out and ride with him.
“Chris has a life now,” Nik says. “That’s the most important part of it. He has a community that he talks to and hangs out with. He has a group of friends that he’s never had before. Out of everything we’ve gotten, that’s the most important thing.”
Lake Gators Swim Club Coach Scott Mairose met Nikic through a mutual friend in January and has been giving him one-on-one lessons ever since. Mairose loves training Nikic and describes the experience as “magical.”
“It has changed my life,” Mairose says. “It’s made me a better person.”
Like Grieb, Mairose had never worked with anybody with Down syndrome before, so he also had to learn how to communicate and navigate Nikic’s world. Mairose swam competitively most of his life, including at the University of Georgia. In working with Nikic, he’s challenged himself to take the same drills he’s done in the past but make them fun. For example, in teaching Nikic how to keep his head down, Mairose swims underneath him and points to his goggles and then back at Nikic while mouthing, “Look at me.” When working on pace, they’ll play a version of sharks and minnows. “It could be me chasing Chris or Chris chasing me for 25 yards,” says Mairose, who works with Nikic two to three days a week.
“What I’ve learned is that not only am I his coach, but he became my coach,” Mairose says. “I told him he’s my life coach because he teaches me how to live. It really is powerful. I don’t know who’s getting more out of it, Chris or me.”
Before he met Nikic, Mairose was burned out from swimming. He spent his entire life waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning and jumping in the pool. After college, he kept swimming but eventually stopped after a shoulder injury. Although he thought he’d never wake up at the crack of dawn to swim again, he started having recurring dreams that something was missing. Now Mairose says coaching Nikic is “fulfilling something inside of me that needed to come back out. If anybody has an opportunity to work with someone like Chris, then they need to jump on it. You don’t need a lot of experience; you just need to be able to connect with people. That’s all it takes. I wish more coaches would do it. Some coaches are hardnosed and try to fit everyone in a box. But that’s what Chris has taught me. You can’t treat everybody the same.”
When he’s not training, Nikic loves eating at Waffle House, playing NBA2K, reading history books, and getting mani-pedis after long Saturday workouts. He’s a public speaker and a featured athlete for adidas, and has written a book called “1% Better: Reaching My Full Potential and How You Can Too” that’ll be released in October.
After his first IRONMAN, celebrities everywhere reached out to him on social media, from tennis legend Billie Jean King to Super Bowl–winning quarterback Tom Brady to Romanian gymnast and nine-time Olympic medalist Nadia Comaneci. Nikic was most starstruck by stand-up comedian Theo Von, who invited him and his dad on his YouTube show.
“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Nikic says.
Just like his performance at the IRONMAN event last year. He finished 1,125th out of 1,500 competitors, meaning more than 300 people either finished behind him or didn’t finish. When he made history by crossing the finish line, he lifted his arms high in celebration and learned that he can do anything, even achieve his dream.
Asked if he feels like a role model, Chris replied confidently, “I am.”
- Human Interest