PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Shortly before midnight Sunday, when Chris Nikic ran down the finishing chute of the Ironman Florida triathlon, the 21-year-old made history.
He became the first athlete with Down syndrome to claim the title of Ironman, completing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in 16 hours, 46 minutes and nine seconds.
Nikic signed up for a new triathlon program with Special Olympics Florida in 2018. After a training session, those who successfully completed a 1-kilometer swim in Orlando lake could sign their names on a wall. Nikic eagerly wrote "Chris world champ."
His father Nik Nikic said that led to a talk about doing triathlons and, eventually, an Ironman.
"I realized, 'Why not? Why can't he do an Ironman?'" Nik said. "So I gave him a piece of paper ... and I said, 'Why don't you write down your dreams? Tell me what you want out of your life.'"
Become a homeowner, buy a car, marry a pretty blonde like his mom and complete an Ironman, he wrote.
His father said it's been extremely helpful for Nikic to work toward specific goals, and he has repeated them daily over the last two years as he accomplishes them. It's been especially gratifying to prove doctors and naysayers wrong.
The Orlando Sentinel reported Nikic had his first surgery to repair two holes in his heart at 5 months old and attended seven schools from kindergarten to fifth grade, when his parents finally found a small private school that could better accommodate him.
But he persevered, swimming in the family pool as a child, and at 16 competed in a spring triathlon.
Nikic lost two years of training due to repeated surgeries to reconstruct his ear canals. When started again, he could barely swim a single lap or run 100 yards without stopping.
"The doctors and experts said I couldn't do anything," he said. "So I said, 'Doctor! Experts! You need to stop doing this to me. You're wrong!'"
It's been an arduous, disciplined journey leading up to Saturday's race, filled with gratifying milestones. He trained six days a week with friends.
Nikic also graduated from high school this year with a modified degree, is taking more classes to get his full diploma and has given dozens of motivational speeches.
He's a quick learner and never gives up. In the beginning, his struggled on the bike, but quickly became so proficient that he outpaced his first coach.
The Special Olympics connected him with veteran Ironman competitor Dan Grieb, who helped coach him along the way. Race officials required Nikic to be tethered to Grieb in the ocean on Saturday for safety reasons. Grieb also rode behind Nikic on the bike course and stayed near him on the run. But it wasn't to pull or propel him forward in any way. Nikic did all the work on his own.
"Because this is a first for us, we had to work out some logistics," said Beth Atnip, Ironman's vice president of global operations. "But I've met Chris, and he is so impressive. His heart is so big. And I think this will open doors for a lot of other folks who maybe just thought it was impossible."
On Saturday, Nikic had 17 hours to complete the race. When COVID cancelled the half-Ironman he planned to do in May, his coach created their own race. Nikic finished in 8 hours, 25 minutes.
Doctors said he'd never do anything more than tie his own shoes, his father said. But he noted, the friendships with his training buddies has been an even bigger blessing than his physical accomplishments.
"The greatest gift that Chris has gotten in all this is the gift of belonging."
Yes, you can wear a mask while exercising. Here are three options courtesy of Megan Burbank of the Seattle Times: