Chris Nikic is the world's first person with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman (Credit: Nik Nikic)

The next time you find an excuse to abandon your aspirations, think of Chris Nikic. On November 7, 2020, the 21-year-old Maitland, Florida, resident made history as the first person with Down Syndrome to attempt and complete an Ironman. Organized by the World Triathlon Corporation, the grueling competition requires athletes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full, 26.2-mile, marathon — in under 17 hours!

The event, which took place in Panama City, Florida, began early in the morning with a two-loop swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Chris, who was tethered to his coach and Ironman veteran Dan Grieb for safety, completed the course well within the allotted 2 hour, 20-minute time limit.

The 112-mile bike ride, which Chris rode solo, proved a little more challenging. Not accustomed to hydrating while riding, he was forced to make multiple stops. To make matters worse, the young athlete was attacked by an army of red ants whose mound he accidentally stepped on during a break. He also had to be treated for a bleeding knee after crashing while speeding downhill. Despite the setbacks, Chris managed to complete the loop before the 5:30 pm cut-off time.

Chris and his coach, Dan Grieb (Credit: Nik Nikic)

The competition's final challenge — a two-loop, 26.2-mile run along the waterfront — started smoothly. However, Chris, who was once again connected to Grieb with a bungee cord, was exhausted by the tenth mile. But, with encouragement from his dad and cheering bystanders, the youngster somehow managed to keep going and crossed the finish line in 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds — almost 15 minutes under the 17-hour time limit

"Ironman. Goal set and achieve," Chris wrote on Instagram. "Time to set a new and Bigger Goal for 2021."

Chris is no stranger to overcoming challenges. Born with two holes in his heart, he underwent surgery at just five months old, was too weak to walk independently until he was four, and unable to swallow solid food until the age of five. Due to his Down Syndrome — a genetic disorder associated with physical growth delays, mild to moderate intellectual disability, and characteristic facial features — every expert his parents spoke to focused on the limitations rather than the possibilities.

“The doctors and experts said I couldn’t do anything,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in a Zoom interview. “So I said, 'Doctor! Experts! You need to stop doing this to me. You’re wrong!’"

Chris stands next to his whiteboard, which lists his goals and achievements (Credit: Nik Nikic)

Fortunately, his parents always encouraged Chris to pursue whatever activities interested him. By the time he was a teenager, Chris was running sprints, playing basketball, and swimming for the Special Olympics. He was introduced to biking at the age of 15. Though it took six months to perfect his technique, once he learned, there was no stopping him. In January 2018, the youngster signed up for a newly-launched triathlon program through Special Olympics Florida. Designed to train athletes with special needs, it included group training, biking, running, and open water swimming sessions. As his confidence grew, Chris began dreaming of completing triathlons, and, eventually, even an Ironman.

“To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory,” his father, Nik Nikic, said in a statement. “Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership. It’s about being an example to other kids and families that face similar barriers, proving no dream or goal is too high.”

Congratulations, Ironman Chris Nikic! You are a true inspiration to the world!