21-Year Old Chris Nikic Becomes First Person With Down Syndrome To Complete An Ironman Triathlon, Smashing Stigmas Along The Way

Smashing Stigmas, Making History, No Excuses

Chris Nikic says on his website that although he could use his obstacles as an excuse to limit him, he doesn’t do excuses, and his coaches won’t take them. Instead, he works hard.

It is this hard work, and his inspirational will to become a little bit better every day that has led Nikic, only 21 years old, to recently become the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Ironman Triathlon, one of the most demanding endurance events in human history.

By completing the Ironman event, Chris Nikic is helping to break through the stigmas and assumptions associated with the physical and intellectual capabilities of people with Down syndrome, and has proven that although there may be developmental delays involved with the condition, they need not be limitations! 

To complete the Ironman Triathlon, you must somehow battle through a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, all nicely topped off with the simple task of a flipping 42km marathon! (I tried doing 3km on a treadmill once, and you know what? I wouldn’t recommend it.) To count as a success, you must complete this absolute mammoth of a trek in just 17 hours. Mr. Nikic managed it in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds; a truly incredible thing for anybody to achieve.

But Chris Nikic is not just anybody. As well as being a high-performance athlete, talented keynote speaker, super-determined individual and inspiration to many, he is also a person with Down syndrome, a condition that results in varying degrees of physical and cognitive delays in anybody who has it.

By completing the Ironman event though, Chris is helping to break through the stigmas and assumptions associated with the physical and intellectual capabilities of people with Down syndrome, and has proven that although there may be developmental delays involved with the condition, they need not be limitations! 

This is a keynote speech from Mr. Nikic’s website detailing his inspirational outlook on life and his progress towards completing the Ironman event. Really worth a watch. Chris delivers keynote speeches like this primarily at schools and corporate conferences.

Overcoming obstacles, smashing stigmas, making history, and making no excuses along the way, Mr. Nikic has become an inspiration to many and I’m sure a hero to kids with Down syndrome around the world.

Before getting on to the details of his glorious Ironman triumph though, first, in the interest of breaking through stigmas and assumptions about Down syndrome, here’s a little information about what the condition actually is.

What is Down Syndrome? 

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that occurs in people of all races and economic levels, and according to the World Health Organisation, ‘the estimated incidence of Down syndrome is between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 1,100 live births worldwide.’

While people typically have 23 even pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell in their body, Down syndrome is a genetic condition in which a person has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21 throughout their genetic makeup. It is this additional genetic material that alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.

Down syndrome takes its name from the English physician John Langdon Down, who was the first to publish an ‘accurate description of a person with Down syndrome’ in 1866. It is a genetic condition that occurs in people of all races and economic levels, and according to the World Health Organisation, ‘the estimated incidence of Down syndrome is between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 1,100 live births worldwide.’

Some common physical traits associated with Down syndrome are low muscle tone and small stature, and in some cases people with Down syndrome may have an increased risk of heart defects, eye diseases, ear infections, hearing loss, and sleep apnea.

As well as these physical traits, individuals with Down syndrome also ‘possess varying degrees of cognitive delays, from very mild to severe,’ with most having cognitive delays that are mild to moderate. Here is a great resource if you want to learn in more detail about Down syndrome.

Here you can see a visual representation of what Down syndrome looks like genetically. Typically you would only see two number 21 chromosomes, but for someone with Down syndrome, there is a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21 present. It is this additional genetic material that causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.

In Mr. Nikic’s case, his low muscle tone required him to use a walker frame until the age of 3 to successfully walk, but as he says on his website, and has clearly proven since, “a delay is just a delay, it is not permanent. It just means we have to work harder and that’s OK.”

And work harder is what Chris Nikic has done, day by day, to gradually become a better version of himself, and to achieve remarkable things.

Here’s a look at how he became an ‘Ironman,’ one day at a time. 

Conquering the World, One Day at a Time

Clearly, the Ironman Triathlon is no joke. I can’t even begin to comprehend the level of physical fitness and mental fortitude required to do something as crazy as that.

To become the first person ever with Down syndrome to do it is even further beyond my comprehension; an absolutely magnificent example of overcoming obstacles to achieve the unthinkable. To say it’s inspirational is an understatement, but the way in which Chris Nikic approaches these gargantuan challenges is the most inspirational, and adoptable part of it.

A video documenting Chris Nikic’s Ironman triumph. Goodness me that looks tough!

Together with his father Nik, Chris has developed what he calls the ‘1% Better Challenge,’ which encourages taking small steps towards improvement on a day-to-day basis. The idea is that by doing just a little more each day, you can sort of eliminate the pain of improvement and stay motivated by focusing on steady, gradual progress.

As Chris states on his website, if you start by walking 100 steps and get 1% better each day for a year, by the end of the year you will be walking 3700 steps per day. If you start with 1000 steps, by the end of the year, you’ll be walking a marathon, all while only having to increase your effort by 1% each day.

Chris talks about this method as a simple way of building better habits, and positively influencing what you focus on. He suggests that if you wake up every day thinking ‘how can I be 1% better today,’ you are probably going to be better off in the long run. I mean imagine if everyone woke up thinking that every morning.

“If I can do so much with so little, imagine what you can do.”

– Chris Nikic

It is this mindset of gradual improvement that drove Chris from being ‘overweight and out of shape’ at 18 to first doing a junior triathlon, to doing a sprint triathlon in 148 minutes, to then doing it in 100 minutes a month later, to doing a ‘half Ironman’ in 8hrs 25mins, and to eventually becoming the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full Ironman earlier this month, all in the space of just over two years.

Chris puts his world record breaking success down to “the culmination of consistent effort over two years,” and urges everyone that “if I can do so much with so little, imagine what you can do.”

An inarguably powerful message, and a reminder that we can all achieve incredible things with the right mindset.

And Chris Nikic is certainly not done achieving incredible things just yet! 

What’s Next for Chris Nikic? 

Chris Nikic at the finish line of the Ironman event. He completed the gruelling trek in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds, becoming the first ever person with Down syndrome to do so; a groundbreaking achievement. But he is far from done yet!

After completing the Ironman event Mr. Nikic stated on Instagram that “I achieved my goal and now I want to help others like me.” He is currently raising money for the special olympics, Down syndrome, and RODS (Racing for orphans with Down syndrome), and you can donate to his fundraising campaign here.

Chris will also be competing in the Ironman World Championship next year as well as the 2022 special olympics, and is even planning to publish a book, titled ‘1% Better,’ in the near future. 

According to Chris’s Dad Nik, what started off as a personal goal and dream for Chris has now ‘morphed into something much bigger’; a platform he can use to make a real difference for other people with Down syndrome.

After completing the Ironman event Mr. Nikic stated on Instagram that “I achieved my goal and now I want to help others like me.” He is currently raising money for the special olympics, Down syndrome, and RODS (Racing for orphans with Down syndrome), and you can donate to his fundraising campaign here.

He has already started using that platform by launching the 1% Better Challenge, which is not just the mindset for gradual improvement I mentioned earlier, but also a campaign for raising funds and awareness for people with Down syndrome.

Here’s how you can get involved. 

The 1% Better Challenge 

To help raise awareness about Down syndrome Mr. Nikic has proposed the ‘1% Better Challenge.’ Here are the steps for completing the challenge if you would like to get involved:

1. Commit to becoming 1% better yourself for 30 days.

2. Sponsor someone with special needs to do the same. 

3. Set specific goals for what you both want to achieve in those 30 days. 

4. Purchase a t-shirt here for you and your sponsor. 

5. Post daily progress with your sponsor on social media, while wearing the t-shirts to raise awareness.

The groovy looking 1% Better Challenge t-shirts, which you can purchase here to help raise awareness about Down syndrome.

If the challenge isn’t for you, again, you can also donate to Chris’s fundraiser here, with all funds going towards the special olympics, Down syndrome, and RODS (Racing for orphans with Down syndrome.)

Clearly Chris Nikic is an incredibly inspirational human with a kind heart, and a drive to make himself and the world around him a better place. 

All I can say is, I’m looking forward to seeing what he achieves tomorrow, when he’s Ironman, + 1%.

About the Author

Adam Millett is a freelance writer for hire who specialises in sustainability and environmental issues. He believes the economy should be circular, businesses should make the world a better place, and that effective content is the best way to spread the word about sustainability. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to bring your vision of sustainability to life.

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