Chris Nikic was just a couple miles away from making history, fighting against his tired legs and the running clock. But it’s what he was fighting for that drove him to the finish line. Or rather, who he was fighting for — the thousands of people around the country inspired by his journey to become the first person with Down syndrome to complete an IRONMAN triathlon.
One of those people was four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper — who scrolled through his social media feed all day for updates from the course in Florida.
Here was Kemper, one of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport, following along in awe as a 21-year-old with Down syndrome accomplished something that even he hasn’t — completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, all in under 17 hours.
“I’ve never done an IRONMAN,” said Kemper, the only four-time Olympian in U.S triathlon history, representing the U.S. in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games. He made a professional career in triathlon’s Olympic-distance race — which features a shorter 1500-meter swim, 24.9-mile bike ride and 6.2-mile run. “I was impressed with what he did.”
What Nikic did captivated the world. That night on Nov. 7, with Kemper and hundreds of thousands more glued to their social media feeds, Nikic accomplished his goal and made history, crossing the finish line at IRONMAN Florida in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds. It was an accomplishment that brought the entire sports world together, and left Kemper feeling “inspired.”
The feat held extra special meaning for him, because of the unique connection between the Kemper and Nikic families.
In 2002, Leigh Brozina was a teaching assistant in a pre-Kindergarten class at Heathrow Elementary School in Lake Mary, Florida.
One of her students was a four-year-old bundle of energy by the name of Chris Nikic. Brozina had a passion for working with kids with special needs, and the two quickly developed a special bond.
Around that time, the Nikic family was looking for a babysitter for their kids — and as a young professional finishing up her Master’s Degree — Brozina was the perfect choice.
Of course, at that time, she went by her maiden name, Leigh Kemper. She’s the older sister by two and a half years of Hunter Kemper, the triathlon legend.
Brozina would go on to babysit Nikic regularly for the next year or so.
She’s maintained a strong relationship with the family ever since, and still looks back fondly on the days when Nikic was a little boy and already proving himself to be quite the athlete.
“Basketball was his thing when I saw him and hung out with him,” Brozina — now married with a kid of her own — said in a phone interview with USA Triathlon. “He’s always been athletic and he enjoyed reading. He’d always have either a book or a basketball in his hand.
“To me, he’s always going to be Christopher. He’s always going to be that little boy I taught and saw grow up. But to see him as the 21-year-old man that he is now, it’s touching that he’s positively impacted so many people, especially those with disabilities.”
Brozina herself has a learning disability. It’s something she’s been able to work on and overcome in her professional career as a teacher.
The challenge taught her the value in hard work, and it’s a quality she’s seen in both Nikic and her Olympian brother.
“I think Hunter and Christopher both have a similar work ethic,” Brozina said, recalling a story of Hunter as a kid writing down that he wanted to be an Olympian someday. “They’re both goal oriented. They have that same mentality.
“With Christopher, he knows what he wants and he’ll accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. I always knew he would do well.”
But even she was amazed to see Nikic become the national story he is today.
When Brozina found out Nikic would be attempting his historic feat in nearby Panama City, she knew she had to be there on race day to cheer him on.
She drove up that night to watch with her 8-year-old son, Charles, and found a spot on the run course at IRONMAN Florida where she knew he’d be passing by.
“We got to see him a few times and cheer him on as he ran past us,” Brozina said. “It’s cool for Charles to see Christopher and know that his mom taught him as a kid.”
With an 8-year-old in tow, she had to leave the course after a while to get back home at a decent hour. Still, she was able to watch a live feed of Nikic crossing the finish line from her computer.
“I was just really proud of him,” Brozina said. “It shows that you can accomplish great things. You shouldn’t let your disabilities limit you. (Chris) is not defined by his Down syndrome. He’s a triathlete. Whatever he’s doing, he’s that person first.”
The Power of Triathlon
Nikic inspired those far beyond the endurance sports community when he conquered triathlon’s greatest challenge. His remarkable accomplishment was covered by major news outlets like CNN, NBC and ESPN, and his amazing journey has been followed closely by people all over the world.
At least for one day, in what has been a difficult year for so many, it brought people together for a reason to celebrate. For Kemper, the fact that it all happened because of the sport of triathlon made the story that much sweeter.
“It was a feelgood story that I think our country needed,” Kemper said. “Chris’ story was a symbol of hope. To see him accomplish that, I was so excited for him. I love his mantra of getting one percent every day.
“The attitude of trying to be better than you were yesterday, it’s a great mindset for sports and for life. It’s appropriate for everyone.”
While he hasn’t got the chance to meet Nikic in person yet, Kemper has heard a lot about him from his older sister. And he’s followed his triathlon journey from afar for a while now.
“It was cool to follow his progression throughout this past year and see how he’s gotten to where he is today,” Kemper said. “I’m a four-time Olympian in the sport and I’ve never done what he has. I’m not an IRONMAN finisher.
“I look forward to meeting him someday and going for a bike ride together or something. I would love to tell him that he’s inspired me.”