On Saturday, Chris Nikic will get up early in the morning, beating the sun by a good couple of hours. He’ll dive into the Gulf of Mexico and fight the current and deluge of other swimmers competing in the Ironman Florida competition.
After fighting against the ocean current and the onslaught or arms and legs of other competitors, Nikic and his coach—joined by a safety tether—will exit the water and hop on a bike, prepared to engage in 112 miles of riding. Because of balance issues, Nikic will have to get off the bike when he needs water or sustenance.
When that’s done, he will then start the easy part of the day, a 26.2-mile jog towards history. If he completes all of this in under 17 hours, he will be the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman event. But the thing is with Chris, he is already a pioneer. Because on Saturday, he will make history as he is the first person with Down syndrome to even attempt one.
The exertion and sacrifice and hard work is for Chris, well, a great time. “To me, it's just like a big party,” he tells En Fuego. “Everybody is making a big deal. So, it's fun. A lot of people are sending me messages about how it is helping them. It makes me feel good to help others.”
Helping others is paramount to a man who is dedicated to bettering himself just a bit each day and doing the same with inclusion, furthering what society sees as attainable.
Saturday will be a historic day that comes with obvious perils in that nobody with Down syndrome has attempted 17 hours of the kind of non-stop physical effort demanded from an Ironman event.
But Chris, he’s someone who has gone through a great deal in his life and has come away from each obstacle better and stronger and with a bigger smile because of it.
Hitting His Stride
“Chris is just pure joy,” Chris’s father Nik Nikic said. “When you meet him. The one thing that stands out is just he's always happy. He lights up a room when you're around him. It's hard to be sad. It's hard to be angry. It's hard to be anything other than, you know, being like him.”
In a word, “he's contagious.” And that infectious personality will be on display as he swims, bikes and runs.
“The hardest part is to bike because sitting for eight hours makes my hands and butt hurt. it is also hard to train for eight hours at one time,” Chris admits.
But he’s gone through it, training anywhere from 25 to 40 hours a week, which often includes four hours a day of swimming and biking and then some strength conditioning.
It’s a marvel, especially when you consider that Chris was born with barriers. At five months old he had open-heart surgery. Eating was an issue for him until the age of five. Walking at all was a struggle until he was four years old.
As Nik explains it, there is a question of muscle tone and cognition for those with Down syndrome. The biggest obstacle for the family, however, was overcoming preconceived notions and outdated advice.
“We believed everything we were told, so that's the first problem,” Nik said. “We were fighting the advice we were being given with the hope that we had. We had no knowledge that anything was possible. It was just hope. It was a parent's hope that he could do more.”
Nik owns a sales consulting firm. He discovered that people don’t like to change all that much. Flip their life upside down and there’s an instinctual pushback. It’s a lesson that served him well in sales, so he created the 1% philosophy.
It’s far more advantageous and enduring to change someone’s habits ever so slightly. One percent at a time is doable. It’s easy to incorporate into your daily life and make it habitual.
He took that philosophy to his son to see if he could improve Chris’s athletic performance. As to the result, Nik perks up before he says, “I can honestly say he has been the best student of my entire career.”
Nik and Chris discovered something revolutionary this past year. While experts had long told them some things were impossible, Nik forged ahead with an idea that his son could indeed ride and run at elite levels.
Thus, was born the 1% Better initiative. What started as a single push-up has Chris conquering feats that would leave most people gasping for air.
"I learned that I am willing to work hard and get one percent better every day, then 'Anything is Possible,'" Chris said. "But I also learned that I can get my dream."
Last October he swam Oregon’s Lucky Lake in a 1,000-meter swim. But it’s what came after that race that inspired Nik. His son went to the lake wall of fame and penned, “Chris World Champ.”
“That's when I said, Huh, that's interesting, and I took a picture of that,” Nik said. “I thought, I wonder if you can be a world champion at something. I wonder if you could do something that’s never been done.”
The minute he registered for Ironman, Chris accomplished that feat. He now plans to top that by finishing the competition to become an ironclad athlete.
It’s the process that has been the most rewarding. “It wasn't until the last year, year and a half, where we learned some things that we never knew that has changed his life completely.”
What the Nikic family learned is that it’s not that Chris can’t do something, it’s that it takes him a long time to learn how to accomplish various tasks.
“So, what happens when your learning curve is that slow?” Nik explains that families raising kids with Down syndrome often self-restrict their children because they believe in the word “can’t.”
“What you tend to believe is that he can't learn, and he'll never get to the point where he can actually do something. So, most parents with kids with Down syndrome never teach their kids to ride a bike because they think it's impossible. And they never teach them things in life because they think they're impossible. What we learned with Chris was that he can learn, but it takes a lot of time.”
The thing about people with Down syndrome is that others automatically put limits on their ability. Meeting someone with the syndrome comes with a handshake and preconceived notions.
The same can be said of coach Dan Grieb, someone who got into Ironman to better himself and subsequently got into coaching Ironman competitors to better others.
“Chris has been told his whole life he wouldn't amount to much. His parents were told he wouldn't accomplish much. So, therefore, the expectation is that he won't do much. And if he doesn't do much, then it's right in order of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Nikic’s coach explained.
Saturday is going to be a glorious day. Much like life, it’s going to be peppered with its own complement of hiccups and perils.
“The biggest problem we have with Chris right now is there is no manual,” Grieb noted. “There's no model for us to look at and say, well, this is how we handled this problem.”
Every athlete goes through daunting moments out on the course. The water is frigid; there are arms and legs splashing around you. Inevitably you hit a mental wall that is so often paired with a physical barrier as well.
How you push beyond that is unknown. How the time will be managed as Chris gets on and off the bike to get needed nutrition will have to be accomplished in real-time. Grieb knows there will be tough moments this weekend.
“Twenty miles of running in the marathon at the end, he's fifteen hours in and he's got six miles to go. How will react when it's literally dark? There's no one out there. He's been awake since four o'clock in the morning. Those are the type things where we've got to look at right now in terms of his physical ability.”
With all that said, Chris is looking good for Saturday. He has been tapering for a week, is hitting his stride physically and has the tools to see his dream through.
“He's mentally prepared,” Grieb said. “He's physically prepared. He's got everything he needs to feel 100% confident that he can complete this physically.”
Grieb is just getting over his own mental hurdles, obstacles each one of us shares. The more we can admit to them the more inclusive the sports world becomes.
“I would like to say I don't have low expectations for him because I believe he can do it all. However, there's this programming that I've received through a lifetime of [thinking] people with disabilities are not capable of doing what you and I are. So, therefore, it surprises you,” Grieb said.
“I no longer am that surprised by what Chris can do, because I recognize what Chris is. He's not like this malfunctioning robot. He's a human being that has goals. Dreams just like you do. Who wants to love and be loved? He wants to give the best of himself away and he wants to make it. He wants to make the road easier for everyone else that's just like him that follows behind.”
Grieb will be there every step of the way, guiding, motivating and taking care of someone he has grown quite close to.
“Over the course of the last year, I've learned how to get one percent better as an athlete, as a father, as a human being, as a business leader,” Grieb said.
“I've been adopted into the Nikic family. I've learned to speak the Nikic language, which is a unique language. I've learned how to speak Down syndrome, which is a unique language as well. And I've earned the title of Uncle Dan, and I believe that I'm the closest person in Chris's life that doesn't share the same last name to him.”
Nikic will face the same choppy waters, demanding bike route and marathon task as everyone else. And he will also have the same strict 17-hour time limit everyone else gets.
If he does make it through, he might not remember the pain or the wall he hit during the marathon. He won’t remember any doubt that may have crept up in his mind. That’s because Chris has this wonderful way of slicing off the bad stuff life garners and embracing very literally the good.
When I ask him about his past accomplishments, a triathlon and half Ironman, he tells me that he can’t quite recall the journey but certainly remembers the revelry.
“I don't remember what it felt like but I remember the hugs the parties and the friends,” he said.
The fact that he signed up and is giving this a shot is not just an inspiration but a road map for others coming behind him.
That’s what matters most to Chris. I ask him what it’s like to give something like this a go, to know that he’s a pioneer about to make history.
“Don't get me wrong, I love the attention,” he said. “Being the first means I can do anything. It also means others like me can do it too. And others like me can have big dreams and goals. It also means that you can live a life of inclusion.”