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'I am going to make history': Man becomes 1st Ironman finisher with Down syndrome

Chris Nikic completed an Ironman race last weekend to become the first person with Down syndrome to do so.
/ Source: TODAY

Every day, Chris Nikic wakes and vows to be 1% better. Over the past year as he trained for his first Ironman race, he knew he needed to gradually improve. This incremental growth is what he believes helped him become the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman triathlon — even after he experienced some cuts from a fall and fire ant bites during a refreshment break. He can also add Guinness World Record holder to his list of accomplishments as the organization said in a statement that this accomplishment made him a record breaker.

After becoming the first person with Down syndrome to both compete in and finish an Ironman, Chris Nikic celebrates with his dad, Nik, and training partner Dan Grieb. Courtesy Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

“I am a person with Down syndrome who will complete the Ironman. I am going to make history by crushing it,” the 21-year-old from Maitland, Florida, located near Orlando, told TODAY prior to completing the race. When Chris returned home after the race, he gave his hard-earned Ironman medal to his mom — along with a big hug.

"I'm so proud of you," she told him.

Competing in an Ironman is not for the faint of heart. Competitors must finish a 2.4-mile swim in open water, a 112-mile bike ride and run a full marathon (26.2 miles) all under 17 hours. Organizers for the Ironman told NBC Nightly News that Chris is the first person with Down syndrome to even attempt the race.

“I have to work hard and give my best every day. If I do an Ironman and become a pro-speaker I will have a chance to get my dream,” Chris said.

Chris’ dreams are modest: He wants a job, a house, a car and a “smoking hot blonde” wife. His dad, Nik Nikic explains that the “smoking hot blonde” is more of a metaphor.

“'Smoking hot blonde' is a concept,” Nik said. “He’s looking for a special person in his life.”

Nik believes that supporting Chris as he prepares for the Ironman helps his son get one step closer to his dreams.

“For me and my wife, the most important thing is that my son is being included and having a sense of purpose,” Nik said. “I am excited about being a part of this journey and watching him and seeing how he feels and how he handles things and watching him being included by the Ironman Foundation.”

Chris Nikic likes running the best out of all three events in the Ironman. Courtesy Nikic family

Chris trains with Dan Grieb, who has completed 16 Ironman races. This is the first time he will be guiding someone else through the event.

“I have a 30% influence on Chris’ performance positively. I can pull him or push him … But I can derail him,” he told TODAY. “I feel that pressure, but I do believe that God specifically elected me for this young man and his family.”

Chris, on the other hand, overflows with confidence.

“Right after the race, I am going to bring the bib to the corporate Ironman offices, they have an empty spot on the wall. I can be on the wall of fame,” he said.

Having the support of his parents has helped Chris Nikic surpass society's expectation of people with Down syndrome. Courtesy Nikic family

Like any competitor in an Ironman, Chris spends a huge chunk of his day training, anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. Over the weekends he will go for a long bike ride one day and a long run the other day. He definitely has a favorite event.

“I would say the running. It makes my butt cute and the ladies love it,” Chris said with a laugh. “I am extremely excited. I can’t wait to crush this Ironman.”

He did face a setback after he had a bike crash that resulted in 14 stitches and kept him from as intense training for a month. But he got back on his bike.

“I overcame my fear,” Chris said.

Nik said when Chris feels overwhelmed, he remembers his goals.

“In a nutshell, his dreams get him back on track,” he said.

Another reason Chris kept training is because he heard from parents of children with Down syndrome and they appreciated him showing that their children do not have to be limited.

“Parents are reaching out saying I am a hero to their kids,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Dan Grieb will compete beside Chris Nikic during his Ironman race. Courtesy Nikic family

His dad agrees. He remembers when he and his wife, Patty, learned that their son had Down syndrome and doctors told them all the things he couldn’t do.

“When your child is born with Down syndrome everyone tells you what they can’t do and how tough it is going to be … Chris is going to prove if he can do an Ironman and he can do anything else,” Nik said. “Being first opens a lot of doors for him and people like him.”

When things get hard during training (and likely during the race), Chris and Grieb have developed a way to overcome it.

“One way we have been able to reboot him is to give him a hug. We call it a hug of vulnerability and while I am hugging him, I am saying things like, ‘I know it’s hard. Ironman is hard. Life is hard sometimes,’” Grieb explained, adding that few people understand what competing in an Ironman really feels like.

When things look tough, Chris Nikic and his race partner Dan Grieb share a "hug of vulnerability," which helps Chris refocus on his event and boosts his confidence. Courtesy Nikic family

When Chris wins, Nik hopes it changes many people’s views on what people with Down syndrome can do.

“It’s helping to give people of view of a future that is completely different,” Nik said. “Our hope is that Chris will launch thousands of parents to look at their children differently.”

This story was updated on November 9, 2020 to reflect that Chris Nikic had completed the race.

CORRECTION (Nov. 6, 2020 4:16 p.m. ET): An earlier version of the article misspelled Nik Nikic's name.