News, Sports

Chris Nikic is an Ironman

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Chris Nikic, Ironman 2020 Image: Instagram @chrisnikic
Image: Instagram @chrisnikic

On Nov. 7, 2020, Chris Nikic did something incredible. He became the first
 person with Down syndrome to complete one of the most gruelling athletic
competitions in the world–the Ironman triathlon.

What is the Ironman?

In the Ironman triathlon, athletes must swim 2.4 miles (3.8 km) and then
bike 112 miles (180 km) and finally run a 26.2 mile (42 km) marathon. Each of those is incredibly challenging, testing athletes’ physical and emotional strength. But Ironman competitors (who can be of any gender) have to do all three in one day.

Nikic started the triathlon just before 6 a.m. on Nov. 7, entering the water
in Panama City, Florida in the United States, for his swim. During the biking section his bike crashed and he skinned his knee. And during a water break, he was bitten by fire ants. But he never gave up. He finished the triathlon in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds–with just 14 minutes to spare before the cut-off time.

The 1% better each day principle

For two years, Nikic trained for the event, using a strategy he developed
with his father Nik which they call the “1% better each day principle.”

Every day, Nikic and his father would strive to become one per cent better. That was their way of improving, while avoiding some of the pain of pushing the body too hard (which is when some people get discouraged and may stop training). Nikic’s father said it works well for “a young man with Down syndrome as well as someone in my age group (45).”

On his website, Nikic outlines six strategies that helped him achieve his
goal of completing the Ironman triathlon: Health (body), health (mind), friends (soul), focus on the positive, help someone else and pass it on.

Nikic originally started exercising in order to recover from ear surgery and to get in shape. Now he has other goals: to live independently and one day have a big house and a nice car and to get married.

Training for the Ironman triathlon has helped make his dreams achievable. In fact, he recently bought a white Chevy and has been offered speaking gigs that may enable him save up enough money to buy a house.

His next goals are to learn how to drive and he has been invited to compete in the US Special Olympics in 2022.

What is Down syndrome?

On the Canadian Down Syndrome Society website, Jan, who has Down syndrome, explains that it is something people are born with. “It happens naturally when an extra copy of chromosome number 21 is made before the baby is born. It could happen to anyone, in any country.”


  1. One per cent better: Chris Nikic’s website notes that if you walk 100 steps and get one per cent better each year, by the end of a year you’ll be walking 3,700 steps. If you start at 1,000 steps, at the end of a year you’ll be walking a marathon. What are some of the other benefits of using a 1 per cent strategy? It’s great for exercise, but where else might it be useful—how could you use it?

  2. The article lists six strategies Nikic used to accomplish his goal. Discuss each one of them and how you could apply to something you’d like to achieve.

  3. Finishing the Ironman triathlon is a major accomplishment for anyone. Think about this article and how it refers to Nikic and Down syndrome. Could it have been written without referring to the fact that Nikic has Down syndrome? Why or why not? Try writing a version of it, about Nikic, without mentioning Down syndrome, drawing on other facts for your story’s “angle.”

  4. The Ironman triathlon is much harder than a regular triathlon. Make a t-chart comparing the distances of the Ironman vs. a regular triathlon (1.5 km (.93 mile) swim; 40 km (25 mile) bike; 10 km (6.2 mile) run. If you’d like, add the distances for a sprint triathlon and a half-Ironman triathlon. Here’s a handy website:

  5. Since his incredible accomplishment, Chris Nikic has been getting letters from people who say he inspired them. Why do you think people are inspired by Nikic?

  6. In the second paragraph, the article notes, “… Ironman competitors (who can be of any gender) …” What does that mean, and why does the article mention it? Discuss the use of the word “any” in that sentence.

  7. Find out more about Down syndrome. What do you know about it? What would you like to know?

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society website features a series of very brief videos with people with Down syndrome answering questions about Down syndrome:


This CBC’s The Current website features audio of an interview with Chris and Nik Nikic and interviewer Rosemary Barton.

CBC News article about Chris Nikic:

New York Times article about Chris Nikic:

Special Olympics website:

Ironman Florida:

13-minute YouTube video of the Florida Ironman featuring Nikic:

Chris Nikic’s website:

Canadian Down Syndrome Society:

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society website features a series of very brief videos with people with Down syndrome answering questions about Down syndrome:

National Down Syndrome Society (US):