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Deuce Bradshaw Photography/Courtesy Nik Nikic

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NCSS: Culture • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

THE BIG READ

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Remarkable Journey of an Ironman

The Ironman triathlon is one of the toughest athletic competitions in the world. As the first person with Down syndrome to conquer it, Chris Nikic offers a lesson in perseverance and hope.

As You Read, Think About: What are some of the challenges Chris Nikic has faced? How has he overcome them?

Click here to watch Chris Nikic training for—and competing in—the Ironman triathlon.

The Florida sky had grown dark, and Chris Nikic (NIK-itch) felt ready to quit. He had been pushing through the grueling competition for more than 13 hours.

It suddenly became too much. He struggled to breathe in the hot, humid air. His feet burned as they pounded the pavement while he ran. His legs felt like concrete. And it seemed as if the muscles in his back had been put through a shredder. 

Nikic, 21, had started the day with determination. If he could finish this race—and do so within the 17-hour time limit—he would be the first competitor with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. That long-distance race—a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run—is considered one of the most difficult athletic challenges in the world.

The Florida sky had grown dark. Chris Nikic (NIK-itch) felt ready to quit. He had been pushing through the grueling competition for more than 13 hours.

It suddenly became too much. He struggled to breathe in the hot, humid air. His feet burned from pounding the pavement while he ran. His legs felt like concrete. And it seemed as if the muscles in his back had been put through a shredder.

Nikic, 21, had started the day with determination. He wanted to finish the race and make the 17-hour time limit. That would make him the first competitor with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. That long-distance race is a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. It is considered one of the most difficult athletic challenges in the world.

Courtesy of Sales Optimizer LLC

Chris Nikic (with his guide, Dan Grieb) competes in the Ironman.

Such a feat would not just put Nikic in the record books. It would also prove to him and to those around him that he could, in fact, do big things. And if he could do big things, then maybe one day he would be able to fulfill his ultimate dream: to live independently and have a wife and a family of his own. 

Having completed the swimming and cycling portions, all Nikic had left to conquer was the run. Would he make it? The finish line was 16 miles away, and he was breaking down. It was then that Nikic summoned the strength to persevere, by reminding himself of the simple vision he had set for himself: One step forward, two steps. One step. Two steps. Three . . . 

Such a feat would not just put Nikic in the record books. It also would prove to him and to people around him that he could indeed do big things. And if he could do big things, then maybe one day he would be able to fulfill his ultimate dream. That dream was to live independently and have a wife and a family of his own.

Nikic completed the swimming and cycling portions. All he had left to conquer was the run. Would he make it? The finish line was 16 miles away. He was breaking down. But then Nikic summoned the strength to keep going. He reminded himself of the simple vision he had set for himself: One step forward, two steps. One step. Two steps. Three . . .

“Isolated, Left Out, Excluded”

Courtesy of Sales Optimizer LLC

To understand the challenges Nikic faced during the race—held this past November in Panama City Beach, Florida—you have to go back to his childhood. 

Nikic has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs when a person is born with an extra chromosome (see “Understanding Down Syndrome,” below). Chromosomes are tiny structures inside cells that determine how a baby’s body forms and how it functions as it grows. The extra chromosome affects the way a child’s body and brain develop, leading to certain physical and intellectual differences and an increased risk for some medical issues.

At 5 months old, Nikic had to have heart surgery. He was so weak and had such poor balance that he didn’t 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 learned to run, it took months for him to discover how to swing his arms at his side instead of holding them straight above his head. Learning to tie his shoes took him years. 

The race was held this past November in Panama City Beach, Florida. To understand the challenges Nikic faced during that event, you have to go back to his childhood.

Nikic has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs when a person is born with an extra chromosome (see “Understanding Down Syndrome,” below). Chromosomes are tiny structures inside cells that determine how a baby’s body forms and how it works as it grows. The extra chromosome affects the way a child’s body and brain develop. It leads to certain physical and intellectual differences and an increased risk for some medical issues.

At 5 months old, Nikic had to have 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 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. Learning to tie his shoes took him years.

Understanding

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that people are born with. Typically, humans have 46 chromosomes in each of their cells. People with Down syndrome, however, have 47. That extra chromosome can cause certain physical and intellectual differences and health issues, including low muscle tone, short stature, and vision and hearing problems. About 6,000 babies in the United States are born with Down syndrome each year—about 1 in 700.

People with Down syndrome are often active participants in their communities. They go to school, work, play sports, and vote. Still, they sometimes face discrimination in school, the workplace, and other areas. 

Many organizations—including the National Down Syndrome Society—are working to ensure equal rights for people with Down syndrome and to educate the public about the condition. To learn more, visit ndss.org.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that people are born with. Typically, humans have 46 chromosomes in each of their cells. People with Down syndrome, however, have 47. That extra chromosome can cause certain physical and intellectual differences and health issues, including low muscle tone, short stature, and vision and hearing problems. About 6,000 babies in the United States are born with Down syndrome each year—about 1 in 700.

People with Down syndrome are often active participants in their communities. They go to school, work, play sports, and vote. Still, they sometimes face discrimination in school, the workplace, and other areas. 

Many organizations—including the National Down Syndrome Society—are working to ensure equal rights for people with Down syndrome and to educate the public about the condition. To learn more, visit ndss.org.

His parents struggled to get him proper care and attention. They moved him to seven different elementary schools, searching for the right fit. At every turn, experts often spoke of Nikic in terms of limits instead of possibilities. 

“I always felt isolated, left out, excluded,” Nikic says, describing the emotions he experienced growing up.

He found comfort in sports. By his early teens, he was running sprints, swimming, and playing basketball in the Special Olympics, a series of athletic competitions for people as young as 8 who have intellectual disabilities.

When Nikic was about 15, his parents took him to a parking lot near their home and taught him how to ride a bike. It took six months for him to go 100 feet. But once he got the hang of it, there was no turning back.

His parents struggled to get him proper care and attention. They moved him to seven different elementary schools, searching for the right fit. At every turn, experts often spoke of Nikic in terms of limits instead of possibilities.

“I always felt isolated, left out, excluded,” Nikic says, describing the emotions he experienced growing up.

He found comfort in sports. By his early teens, he was running sprints, swimming, and playing basketball in the Special Olympics. That is a series of athletic competitions for people as young as 8 who have intellectual disabilities.

When Nikic was about 15, his parents took him to a parking lot near their home. They taught him how to ride a bike. It took six months for him to go 100 feet. But once he got the hang of it, there was no turning back.

About 1 in 700 babies in the U.S. are born with Down syndrome each year.

The Ultimate Test

After undergoing a series of ear surgeries that left him weak and unable to leave his home, Nikic became determined to do more than he ever had before. 

In October 2019, with the help of an endurance training group and Dan Grieb, a volunteer coach, Nikic set his sights on the Ironman. 

The race was the ultimate test. Nikic felt that if he could conquer it, he could do anything. 

He and Grieb began meeting early in the morning, focusing on making small improvements each day. Grieb helped Nikic learn how to shift gears and balance on his bike. How to ride with the wind instead of against it. How to relax while swimming in the ocean, even around jellyfish. 

Soon, Nikic added muscle to his 5-foot-10-inch frame. Everyone around him noticed that as he grew more fit, he seemed mentally sharper, more confident. The race neared.  

“Based on all of his training, I was certain he would finish” in under 17 hours, says Nikic’s father, Nik. “Unless something went wrong. Something can always go wrong.”

Nikic went through a series of ear surgeries that left him weak and unable to leave home. After that, he became determined to do more than ever before.

In October 2019, Nikic set his sights on the Ironman. He had help from an endurance training group and Dan Grieb, a volunteer coach.

The race was the ultimate test. Nikic felt that if he could conquer it, he could do anything.

He and Grieb began meeting early in the morning. They focused on making small improvements each day. Grieb helped Nikic learn how to shift gears and balance on his bike. How to ride with the wind instead of against it. How to relax while swimming in the ocean, even around jellyfish.

Soon, Nikic added muscle to his 5-foot-10-inch frame. Everyone around him noticed that as he grew more fit, he seemed mentally sharper, more confident. The race neared.

“Based on all of his training, I was certain he would finish” in under 17 hours, says Nikic’s father, Nik. “Unless something went wrong. Something can always go wrong.”

Trouble Ahead 

Early in the morning on race day, a strong wind swept across the Gulf of Mexico. The first portion of the race was the 2.4-mile swim. Grieb was in the water as a guide, joined to Nikic by a bungee cord. For safety reasons, Florida race officials required Nikic and Grieb to be physically connected while they were in the ocean. Swimming together, they emerged from the choppy sea in just under two hours. 

Early in the morning on race day, a strong wind swept across the Gulf of Mexico. The first part of the race was the 2.4-mile swim. Grieb was in the water as a guide. He was joined to Nikic by a bungee cord. For safety reasons, Florida race officials required Nikic and Grieb to be physically connected while in the ocean. Swimming together, they came out of the choppy sea in just under two hours.

Chris Nikic told himself that if he conquered the Ironman, he could do anything he set his mind to.

The 112-mile bike ride came next. Grieb helped Nikic onto his bike and got his feet onto the pedals. 

There would be trouble ahead. Because Nikic could not balance well enough to sip water while riding, he had to stop and climb off his bike to take a drink. When he did that on the 22nd mile, he had not noticed that he was standing atop a large mound of red ants. They swarmed his ankles and bit his skin, causing his legs to swell.

Nikic managed to get going again, only to accidentally crash his bike a few miles later while speeding down a hill. Again, he kept on. 

The 112-mile bike ride came next. Grieb helped Nikic onto his bike and got his feet onto the pedals.

There would be trouble ahead. Nikic could not balance well enough to sip water while riding. To take a drink, he had to stop and climb off his bike. He did that on the 22nd mile. But he had not noticed that he was standing on a large mound of red ants. They swarmed his ankles and bit his skin, making his legs swell.

Nikic managed to get going again. A few miles later, he accidentally crashed his bike while speeding down a hill. Again, he kept on.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Nikic with Grieb moments before crossing the finish line

“There Are No Limits”

Then came the marathon portion, a 26.2-mile run. It began well enough. Nikic looped through the streets of Panama City Beach in the nighttime darkness, connected to Grieb so he could keep from falling and stay on course. He passed a group of family and friends who cheered in support.

But at mile 10, everything changed. Nikic slowed so much that it seemed as if he was barely moving at all. He began complaining about the pain. “He looked like a zombie,” says his sister, Jacky. “Like he was just absolutely done.” 

Nikic’s supporters huddled close, hoping to lift his spirits. His father clutched him and whispered in his ear: “Are you going to let your pain win or let your dreams win?” 

Nikic knew this wasn’t only about finishing an Ironman but also about showing himself what he could achieve in the future. His own home. Independence. 

“My dreams are going to win,” he told his father. 

He began to jog again. One step forward. Two. Three. One step. Two. Three. 

He found his rhythm. Nothing could stop him. He crossed the finish line with his arms held high in celebration—and a little time to spare. He completed the race in 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds. 

“I learned that there are no limits,” Nikic said days after finishing the Ironman. “Do not put a lid on me.” 

Then came the marathon part of the race, a 26.2-mile run. It began well enough. Nikic looped through the streets of Panama City Beach in the nighttime darkness. He stayed connected to Grieb so he could keep from falling and stay on course. He passed a group of family and friends. They cheered in support.

But at mile 10, everything changed. Nikic slowed so much that it seemed as if he was barely moving. He began to complain about the pain. “He looked like a zombie,” says his sister, Jacky. “Like he was just absolutely done.”

Nikic’s supporters huddled close. They were hoping to lift his spirits. His father clutched him and whispered in his ear: “Are you going to let your pain win or let your dreams win?”

Nikic knew this was not only about finishing an Ironman. It also was about showing himself what he could achieve in the future. His own home. Independence.

“My dreams are going to win,” he told his father.

He began to jog again. One step forward. Two. Three. One step. Two. Three.

He found his rhythm. Nothing could stop him. He crossed the finish line with his arms held high in celebration. He even had a little time to spare. He completed the race in 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds.

“I learned that there are no limits,” Nikic said days after finishing the Ironman. “Do not put a lid on me.”

Write About It! What is one of your goals? How can you apply lessons from Nikic’s story to help you achieve your goals?

Click here to read a paired text article about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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