It is during the darkest times that the brightest lights shine. When Chris Nikic unexpectedly took his place in the spotlight, the world embraced him. As the first person with Down Syndrome to complete the rigorous Ironman Triathlon, Nikic not only earned a place in history, but he also showed us the power of resilience and tenacity in achieving seemingly insurmountable goals. His strategy was simple: be “1% Better” each day. Thanks to his newfound stardom, it has become a slogan he hopes will inspire others.
“1% Better is about each of us being the best we can be and being happy with who you are and making the most out of the potential God gave you,” Nikic explained. “I showed the world that by following the 1% Better plan, I could achieve what most people could not achieve.”
The 21-year-old couldn’t run a mile when he first started training, nor could he ride his bike without falling due to issues with balance. But together with help from his father and his coach, Ironman veteran Dan Grieb, the elements of the triathlon were broken down into small milestones. The ultimate goal was to complete the Ironman within the allotted 17 hours. The event involves swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, biking 112 miles, and then running a full 26.2 mile marathon.
For Nikic, the journey to being his best self was never easy. Born with Down Syndrome and two holes in his heart, Nikic underwent heart surgery as an infant. Through therapy he learned life skills like how to hold a fork. He overcame countless illnesses and many social hurdles, all while continuing to have courage and dream big.
“It took a year of preparing to be courageous for the moment when I needed it,” he shared. “My dad taught me that practice and repetition every day was important to train my mind to focus on just one more: one more block, one more loop, one more mile. That's what I did, I did just one more until the last mile when people started hugging me and I knew the red carpet was coming.”
That training helped Nikic overcome additional challenges that occurred during the race. While taking a nutrition break during the bike ride, he stepped on a pile of fire ants, receiving hundreds of bites. Despite the resulting boils on his feet, he still had to run a full marathon. Before he could get there, he lost control of his bike and crashed. His coach recalls the horrible moment, and then seeing his star pupil get back up with a smile on his face. Despite the exhaustion and agony from his blisters, Nikic prevailed, and as he crossed the finish line, heard the announcer proclaim, “Chris Nikic, you are an Ironman!”
Not only did he accomplish his personal goal, but he changed the sport. Ironman has now created a new category for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Nikic is happy about the change and hopes his friends in Special Olympics will be inspired to compete. He wants them to know they can do it too. And he wants them to experience the inclusion he has found through the sport.
“The best thing that happened to me is being included in the club, parties and work,” the Ironman said. “I found that there are so many wonderful and amazing people out there who want us to be included but we have to try.”
Through both his words and actions, Nikic has introduced the 1% Better challenge, inviting “others like you to help others like me to achieve our potential and create more inclusion,” Nikic explained. “We are all better together.”