The Real-Life Iron Man

Triathlete Chris Nikic made history as the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon.

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At just 21 years old, Florida-native Chris Nikic made history as the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon. On Saturday, November 7, Nikic ran through the finish line with 14 minutes to spare before the 17 hour cut-off mark (participants who take longer than 17 hours to complete the contest receive a “did not finish”), having swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles. His impressive feat was officially recorded in the Guinness World Records last month and garnered massive support from many celebrities and athletes on social media, including tennis athlete Billie Jean King and Special Olympian Chelsea Warner.

From a very young age, Nikic faced several medical complications in addition to Down syndrome, which in itself had already caused severe learning disabilities and bone growth complications. Nikic had open-heart surgery at five months old due to a pre-existing health condition, and as a result, he could not walk properly until age four or eat solid food until age five. Doctors and scientists flooded his family with discouraging words, citing all the activities he would no longer be able to do. This doubt, however, only pushed Nikic to work harder to achieve goals that had seemed almost impossible at the time.

Nikic began training for the triathlon in 2017. Starting with a single push-up, his father motivated him to become “one percent fitter” every day. Nikic worked closely with coach Dan Grieb as the two strived to prepare Nikic for the Ironman Florida.

According to Nikic’s father, finishing the Ironman Triathlon would prove that Nikic could accomplish something he’d always dreamt of: a normal life. Nikic was motivated both by a desire to achieve something that had never been accomplished before and by a genuine love for sports. Memories of doctors repeatedly saying discouraging messages, such as “he can’t” or “he will never,” only fueled Nikic’s hunger to work harder. His grueling practices, often starting as early as four in the morning, paid off, as his incredible Ironman performance was met with tears of joy and proud smiles from his family.

The 16 hour, 46 minute, and nine second triathlon tested Nikic’s limits, as he suffered minor cuts and bruises from a bicycle crash and even endured several ant bites. The sheer support from his family, friends, and strangers cheering on the sidelines, however, willed him to the finish line. Throughout the race, his father helped him with his equipment and handed him refreshments during the event transitions. Cameras captured a beautiful moment in which Nikic’s family offered him encouraging words as he paused for a brief break. His father proudly told him: “You are almost an Ironman, buddy. You’re two-thirds of an Ironman.”

Nikic’s story has inspired many: children born with disabilities striving to accomplish their goals, aspiring athletes training to get fitter, and everyday people looking for motivation. Parents of children with disabilities flooded Nikic’s Instagram page with similar stories of perseverance shortly after his performance blew up on the interview, thanking Nikic for his courage. I am excited to see the impact Nikic’s story will have on athletes with disabilities as they begin their journeys to becoming future Ironmen and Ironwomen.

Since breaking this historic barrier, Nikic has used his platform to inspire other athletes to achieve their goals. He currently runs a website named after his motto, “one percent fitter,” where he conducts most of his outreach. As for the future, Nikic has his mind set on the 2022 USA Special Olympics in Orlando, Florida, where, armed with his new Ironman title, he will continue to embody the strength, resilience, and willpower of the iconic Marvel character.