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An Iron Will

Featured Photo from An Iron Will

This local athlete is poised to become the first-ever competitor with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon

Nik and Patty Nikic of Maitland thought they were doing the right thing. Their son Chris was born with Down syndrome, and from the beginning, they treated him as if he was challenged. It was the exact opposite of the way they raised their daughter, Jacky, who was born 10 years earlier.

“It was as different as night and day,” Nik says of their parenting approach. “When Jacky came along, we noticed that she was physically more advanced and smarter than most other kids. She was gifted, and we treated her as a gifted child. With Chris, we treated him as if he was special. We overprotected him; we treated him differently. Actually, we did more damage than good.”

Chris was 18 years old when Nik says he had one of those light-bulb moments. After undergoing four major ear surgeries, Chris suddenly became quite sedentary, and Nik was looking for a way to encourage his son to be more active again.
“He had always been marginally active,” Nik says of Chris, who started competing as a golfer at age nine for Special Olympics Florida – Seminole County. “After high school, kids with special needs can get isolated and withdraw from the world. They get overweight and out of shape. I didn’t want that to happen to Chris.”

Fortunately, Nik discovered that Special Olympics was starting a pilot triathlon program. Nik loved the idea of using multiple sports – swimming, cycling, and running – to get Chris back into shape. So, Nik pitched the idea to his son, and Chris was on board.

“My dad said it was a part of Special Olympics, so this was just a chance to have some fun,” says Chris, now 20. “He told me it was something we could enjoy together to get in shape.”

Chris signed up to be one of four athletes in the first local Special Olympics triathlon, which was offered as a unified exhibition sport, meaning each participant would be paired with a unified partner (a person without a disability). After about four months of training, Chris completed his first triathlon, with his dad as his unified partner, and finished dead last. But it got his competitive juices flowing, and with each race, Chris has continued to improve and impress his dad.

“For 18 years, I thought I needed to treat him differently,” Nik says. “Then I stopped doing that, and I started treating him like he was gifted, too. And boy, has he risen to the occasion!”

Employing his father’s strategy of trying to get one-percent better each day, Chris has blossomed into an amazing triathlete. He has completed six sprint triathlons (a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run), one Olympic-distance race (one-mile swim, 25-mile ride, 6.2-mile run), and one half Ironman Triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile ride, 13.1-mile run). Chris has now set his sights on the ultimate challenge: a full Ironman Triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride, 26.2-mile run).

Finishing, First
Chris became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a half Ironman when he accomplished the feat with his triathlon club in May. His attempt to become the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full Ironman is scheduled for November in Panama City Beach.

Chris trains six days a week for up to six hours a day, despite admitting that he loves “food, video games, and my couch.” He trains by himself and with his dad, as well as with unified partner Dan Grieb, triathlon coach Hector Torres, and Special Olympics coach Simone Goodfriend.

“Ironman is one of the world’s most challenging competitions,” says Victoria Johnson, director of Special Olympics Florida – Seminole County, “and I am so proud that he is showing the world that anything is possible with hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Chris is inspiring people with and without disabilities all over the world and showing everyone why inclusion matters. I am so incredibly proud of him.”

Nik is also amazed at the strides Chris has made since he took on the triathlon challenge. This is a child who had open-heart surgery at five months old and needed a walker to walk at age three.

“He knows what he wants,” says Nik, who motivates Chris with rewards like ice cream and extra rice at his favorite Chinese restaurant. “He knows you can sit on the couch and never achieve your dream. Or you can do an Ironman and become a public speaker and reach all your goals.”

“It Feels Good to Inspire”
Chris has already garnered local and national attention. In the summer of 2019, Nik arranged for Chris to speak about his 1% Better Each Day Principle to 1,000 colleagues at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt during a national sales conference in Orlando. Chris was featured on USA Triathlon’s website this past January, and that led to an invitation to speak to 700 educators in North Carolina in February. In May, he was featured in an article in USA Today.

“It feels good to inspire others,” Chris says. “I get calls from parents who have kids like me, and they are inspired to help them do better. That makes me feel good.”

Triathlon training has made Chris both physically and mentally tougher. His goal now is to become a motivational speaker, “so I can buy my own car, buy my own house, and,” Chris grins, “marry a smoking-hot blonde from Minnesota [just like Nik did when he married Patty].”

Nik is certain that Chris is on track to achieve all his goals.

“This is teaching him how to build a mindset to get through life,” Nik says of the triathlon preparation. “Now I know he can tackle just about anything in life. He can set an example and accomplish great things. I think this kid is going to do things I haven’t even thought about. His future is going to be amazing.”

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