How 20-year-old Chris Nikic is breaking down barriers

By Emily Randolph | Jan. 31, 2020, 12:42 p.m. (ET)

chris smiling in pool

To watch Chris Nikic compete in a triathlon is a heartwarming and encouraging experience. 

The 20-year-old with Down syndrome loves the swim and enjoys the final sprint to the finish line and into his parent’s arms. 

But his favorite part? His ritual? 

Well, that’s all the hugs he stops to give spectators, fellow race participants and his family. There’s no stopping him in it — he sneaks in as many hugs as he can get.

“I like to be around people and encourage them,” Chris said.

He just loves people, and it makes him feel good to go and give them a big hug. It’s the natural thing for him to do, and he loves the reaction people give him – how much they enjoy it.

Chris is just an all-around happy guy. He laughs at everything, even his coach yelling at him, and his joy is contagious. 

chris running in race

“It’s hard to yell at him when he is laughing and having so much fun,” his father, Nik Nikic, said. “He brings sunshine to a room.”

Triathlon has allowed Chris, a Florida native, to be a part of a group and display his competitiveness. He’s no longer isolated. He’s a triathlete and he wants to beat his friends, just like the rest of us. 

After seeing Chris at races, people have rallied around his inspiration because they have a friend or family member with Down syndrome. He is now part of the triathlon community, and has inspired more people like him to start.

“You can do things you never thought possible,” said Chris, who wants to show fellow Down syndrome community members they can do triathlon, too.

Chris has completed six sprint triathlons and one Olympic-distance race. The Challenge Daytona was his favorite.

He started competing in triathlons when he was 16, but lost two years due to ear surgeries, and when he came back to the sport a year ago, he was barely able to swim a lap in a pool, could barely run 100 yards, and had a hard time riding his bike. 

“He’s gone from barely being able to do anything,” Nikic said, “to running an Olympic-distance triathlon.”

His goal now? To complete an IRONMAN. 

Chris is using triathlon and IRONMAN training as a path to independent living. The sport is a vehicle to challenge him to learn to be the best he can be. Multisport, in its nature, helps Chris with learning and keeps him from getting bored. It is believed Chris would be the first athlete with Down syndrome to complete an IRONMAN. 

Every day after school, Chris goes to the gym to train. His parents drop him off for three hours, and he takes spin, group fight, Zumba and yoga classes and also plays basketball in the gym. When he gets home he asks, “Where’s my dinner?” Training is hard, and food is very important, he says. 

He trains five or six times a week, only getting one day off, and he needs to keep that schedule, he says, because he loves to eat. His favorite pre-race food is Waffle House, because he loves the restaurant's eggs and bacon. 

Chris has other dreams, too. He wants a house, a wife, and an eight-pack like his coach. For some with Down syndrome, this type of dream is fantasy, but Chris has proven that anything is possible.

chris sitting with goals calendar

His coach, Daniel Grieb is encouraged and inspired by watching him do the work without complaining. 

“Chris doesn’t do it to win,” Grieb says, “he does it with a mission to inspire others like him.” 

Triathlon is the basics of life skills training for Chris, Grieb explained. He is subconsciously learning how to live independently.

Since he started, Grieb has watched Chris begin to process faster, and as that happens his confidence also grows. Grieb believes that life imitates sports and sports imitate life — teaching Chris to get through the sport will in turn help him to conquer challenges in his life. He is learning to not only become a better athlete, but also a better human being.

“Chris actually seems to get faster at the end, and as soon as he finishes his father is waiting for him,” Grieb said. “They have this long, heartfelt hug where you can feel the pure love of father and son. It’s pride between the two of them that you just don’t see every day.”

Chris runs for that. When he gets to the finish line he gets to hug his mom and dad. These moments at the finish line are special; moments Grieb will never forget.

Getting 1% Better Every Day

Outside of triathlon, Chris also has a career in public speaking. He speaks on the habit of getting 1% better each day in order to achieve your goals. Triathlon sets up this career path by giving him a story to tell, and he has two upcoming speaking engagements in February.

Chris talks about getting 1% better each day, and it’s actually his learning process. 

“We take everything he does and break it down into its simplest components,” Nikic said, “and then we say, how can we have him learn it?”

It looks like he’s doing the same thing everyone else is doing, but he had to learn by breaking it down and getting a really simple approach. It’s something the average person doesn’t think twice about. 

“They have developed a system that applies to anybody and can accomplish any goal,” Grieb said. “It’s breaking things down into very simple pieces so that they’re no longer so complex.”

chris posing with coach in wetsuit

“Chris takes a lot smaller bites than you and I could,” Grieb said. 

“But he takes more bites per day and he takes them every day,” Nikic added.

His father has also noticed big intellectual changes in Chris since he began competing in triathlons. 

“Every time he breaks through physically, he also breaks through intellectually,” Nikic says. It takes him only a couple days to do things it used to take him a month to do, and the proud father is excited to see more breakthroughs as Chris trains for IRONMAN.

People like Chris are minimized their whole life, Nikic said. What motivated his coach, Grieb, to train Chris were words from Nikic. 

“His father said, ‘I’m okay if he fails,’” Grieb said, “and that’s when I said ‘I’m in.’ If you minimize him, you minimize his failure, and then there is no room for learning.”

One day, Chris fell off his bike while going downhill. They figured out that the problem was the bike, and you know what they did? They bought a new bike. 

“The average person with a child with Down syndrome would have quit after that,” Nikic said. “But you can’t quit. You have to let them feel the same pain as everybody else because that’s how you learn.”

Chris is scheduled to do a Half IRONMAN in May and the full in November, both in Panama City Beach.

He gets up every morning and does the work, which inspires his father every day. 

“I don’t care what other people think,” Chris said. “I don’t make excuses.”

“Plus,” his father added, “I heard the ladies love an Ironman.”

You can find Chris on Instagram with the username chrisnikic and check out one of his speeches on getting 1% better on YouTube.