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Incredible athlete becomes first person with Down syndrome to complete grueling Ironman World Championship
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Incredible athlete becomes first person with Down syndrome to complete grueling Ironman World Championship

Chris Nikic has done it again. After he became the first competitor with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon back in 2020, Nikic has now become the first and only competitor with Down syndrome to complete the Ironman World Championship, which returned to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, this year after a two-year COVID hiatus.

An Ironman is an especially challenging competition, both physically and mentally. It is composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile road bike race, and a 26.2-mile marathon run. Each of those segments is an arduous task in and of itself. An Ironman stacks those races back to back to back. In addition, the Ironman World Championship, which began in 1978, requires all participants to finish within 17 hours, through heat, humidity, and all the mosquitos and other natural elements that often coincide with such conditions.

Last Thursday, Nikic finished the race with plenty of time to spare. He clocked in at 16 hours, 31 minutes, and 27 seconds, making him the 2,265th competitor out of 2,314 total to cross the finish line with an official time that day.

And the moment he crossed the finish line — his volunteer guide, Dan Grieb, by his side — was emotional for everyone: Nikic, Grieb, friends and family, the announcer, other competitors, and those in attendance.

"And here he comes," the announcer stated enthusiastically. "From Florida, Chris Nikic, the first person with Down syndrome to finish Ironman Hawaii."

Nikic then jumped into Grieb's arms in a touching moment of sheer exuberance. Other notable competitors joined the two men at the finish line to mark the historic occasion. Chelsea Sodaro, who won the women's professional race in 8:33:46, and six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen were both there to celebrate Nikic's success.

But Nikic wasn't done winning yet. He capped off the tremendous feat by offering his girlfriend and fellow special-needs athlete Adrienne Bunn a promise ring. That day, October 6, also happened to be Nikic's 23rd birthday.

During the race, both Nikic and Grieb sported bright orange shirts to bring awareness to Nikic's 1% Better foundation, which encourages others to better their lives just 1% each day. And Nikic does have a lot to teach others, whether they have special needs or not. For the Ironman, he trained six days a week for up to four hours. He also qualified for and completed the New York City Marathon in 2021.

"I want to be an example for other people with Down syndrome," Nikic said previously. "I want to open doors, and I want to raise awareness. Anyone who sees people with Down syndrome: Don't look away or walk away."

In addition to Nikic, at least one other special-needs competitor participated in the Ironman World Championship race this year. Beth James, 57, of Crested Butte, Colorado, completed the course with her daughter Liza James, 26, literally in tow. Liza suffered a traumatic brain injury nearly two decades ago, but can join in athletic competitions, thanks to her mother's perseverance. The mother-daughter pair crossed the finish line in 17 hours and 58 minutes.

Because of his strength and determination, Nikic has inspired people all over the world. In 2021, ESPN honored Nikic with its Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, and earlier this year, Nikic partnered with Adidas to help inspire others with Down syndrome to pursue athletics.

"When I was a kid," Nikic relates in the ad, "I rarely saw anyone who looks like me in mainstream sports.

"And now, we're changing that," he adds with conviction.

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