Ironman With Down Syndrome Lobbies For Neurodivergent Athlete Category
DENVER — The first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon begins a speech by introducing himself as someone who was overweight and out of shape five years ago with no job, no girlfriend, “no future” and a life that made him feel excluded, isolated and alone.
But, Chris Nikic says, the motivation he applied to triathlon and marathon training helped him set big goals and realize remarkable dreams.
“I am an Ironman, ESPY winner, public speaker, author and Adidas (sponsored) athlete,” Nikic said last week at the annual Running USA Industry Conference in Denver. “I’ve run the Boston, New York City and Disney marathons as a Special Olympics ambassador. And, as you can see, I am adorable — single, but not available.”
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The 23-year-old Floridian has a girlfriend whom he describes as a “smoking hot blonde like my mom.” His father, Nik, fully expects Chris to marry her in the next couple of years.
“I still get emotional because it’s hard to believe what he’s done, the difference in his life compared to what it was five years ago, and the impact that will have on other parents like me and my wife and their children,” Nik Nikic said. “How can you not get emotional about how life can change when you give these kids a chance to be part of the community?”
In 2020, Nikic completed an Olympic distance triathlon (32 miles), a Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and a full Ironman. Last October, he competed in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, the ultimate event in the sport. With a swim of 2.4 miles, a bike ride of 112 miles and a marathon run (26.2 miles), Nikic finished in 16 hours, 31 minutes on his 23rd birthday.
It also occurred during Down syndrome awareness month.
“Chris always leans on his dreams to get there. But after he did his first Ironman, and started reading all the social media comments from moms and dads, and how much of an impact he’s made on their lives, he developed an even stronger dream — one that goes beyond him, which is to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Chris and his father didn’t come to the Running USA conference merely to share an inspirational story. They challenged race directors to create a special competitive category in their events for neurodivergent athletes.
Most people are born with 23 sets of paired chromosomes, one from each parent. But with Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, there’s a third chromosome at position No. 21. Based on that, Nikic will run the Chicago Marathon next fall with bib number 321 to spread awareness, and he hopes to run it in 3 hours, 21 minutes or less.
After he spoke Tuesday, dozens of race officials expressed an interest in including a “Runner 321” category at future events.
“My purpose,” he said, “is to inspire you to create a Runner 321 category in every running event in the world.”
Nikic had open heart surgery when he was an infant. When he was 12, his neck was too weak for rides at Disney World, which is about a half-hour drive from his home in Maitland, Fla. When he was 17, he had four major ear surgeries.
“After four ear surgeries, I gained 40 pounds, and I was in bad shape,” Nikic said. “We set a goal to do an Ironman. The problem was, I loved golf and basketball but not swimming, biking and running. Other than that, I was great for an Ironman.”
With his father’s coaching, he began by writing down his dreams and setting goals to get 1% better each day. On day one of his training regimen, he did one push-up, one sit-up and one squat. When he did his first Ironman, he could do 200. Now, he says, he can do 430.
He wrote down other dreams: to make money so he could buy his own house and car. He wants to marry his girlfriend, Adrienne Bunn, and buy her a ranch with two horses, two dogs and a peacock. He has given her a “promise ring.” She said “yes.”
His father is convinced training for triathlons and marathons has helped Chris in other areas of his life.
“Cognitively he is improving and physically he is improving,” Nik Nikic said. “His mind is getting sharper, he’s making better decisions.”
He’s planning to do the Tokyo Marathon in March, the London Marathon in April, the Berlin Marathon in September and the Chicago Marathon in October. Always the goal is to inspire other neurodivergent people while spreading the message of inclusion.
“It’s very difficult and heartbreaking when you think about all the kids who get excluded,” Nik Nikic said. “There were always the cool kids and the kids who got excluded. But with Down syndrome, it’s even more severe because their speech is slow, their thinking and decision-making is slow, their physical ability to keep up is slow. It becomes an easy differentiator to get them excluded, so they don’t get invited to parties, they don’t get invited to the Friday night movies, they don’t get invited to sports, so they end up staying home by themselves playing video games. As they get to 18 and 19, when everybody else goes to college or gets a job, and they stay home, life really becomes devastating.”
Tears form often in Nik’s eyes as he relates his son’s story.
“He makes me cry every day,” Nik confesses.
Nearby, Chris overhears and teases his father: “Quit crying, Dad.”
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