An Ironman is one of the toughest athletic events around. Consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, it’s grueling, both physically and mentally. 

21-year-old Chris Nikic made history on November 7, 2020, becoming the first athlete with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman. He finished Ironman Florida in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds.

We had a chance to chat with Chris and his coach, Dan Grieb, about what it was like to train for such a challenging race, and what’s in store for the future. 

Training for Ironman

Chris completed his first sprint triathlon (500m swim, 12.8-mile bike, 5k run) in December 2019, and he was hooked. He decided to set a lofty goal to compete in Ironman Florida just 11 months later.

To prepare for Ironman, Chris trained between 3 and 8 hours per day, 6 days a week. During certain parts of his training, Chris would train for 13 days straight before he got a day off! To refuel post workout, Chris loves to eat at PF Chang’s or Waffle House.

Related: What It’s Like Swimming Around Alcatraz Island

From a coaching perspective, Dan said he’s grateful to have the opportunity to work with Chris. Seeing the impact Chris has had on the triathlon community in addition to paving the way for others with Down syndrome is really inspiring.

The Importance of Family

Related: Lizzi Smith, Team USA Paralympic Medalist | The #AskASwimPro Show

Family is a huge part of Chris’s life. He said he’s grateful for his parents’ support in his training, which caused him to be away for large chunks of time. To show his appreciation, he gave his Ironman finisher’s medal to his mom! 

The 1% Better Challenge

To stay motivated during training, Chris and his father created the 1% Better Challenge, which aims to promote Down Syndrome awareness and encourages people to strive to improve each day. As part of the challenge, athletes partner with someone with special needs, set a 30-day goal, and work to get 1% better each day until they achieve that goal.

Chris started his challenge with 1 push up, 1 sit up and 1 squat. He committed to adding 1 rep per day until he reached 200 reps of each exercise!

Learn more about the 1% Better Challenge >

Advice for Fellow Athletes

Chris knows first-hand what it’s like to be discounted — for people to tell him he can’t do anything because of his Down Syndrome. He hopes to inspire people — especially others with intellectual disabilities — and show the world that you can do anything.

Related: Jessica Long, 23-Time Paralympic Medalist | The #AskASwimPro Show

His biggest piece of advice? Don’t listen to the critics who say you’re limited. Set your mind to your goals and get 1% better every day! Work hard and do it with a smile. 

What’s Next

PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 07: Chris Nikic and his guide Dan Grieb competes in the run course of IRONMAN Florida on November 07, 2020 in Panama City Beach, Florida. Chris Nikic is attempting to become the first Ironman finisher with Down syndrome. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

Chris hopes to compete in the 2021 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. He also has his eyes set on the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. In 2023, Chris hopes to travel to Germany to compete in the Special Olympics World Games.

He plans to continue raising money for Special Olympics, Down Syndrome and Racing for Orphans with Down Syndrome (RODS). Donate to Chris’s Ironman Foundation fundraiser >

He’s also interested in exploring more public speaking opportunities to share his story and inspire others.

Follow Chris’ journey on Instagram at @chrisnikic. Learn more about Chris and the 1% better challenge here >


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