The Special Olympics USA Games unites thousands of athletes, coaches, volunteers, and fans from all 50 states and the Caribbean. Hosted in Orlando from June 5-12, the Games “will promote the ideals of acceptance and inclusion through sport while highlighting Special Olympics’ work in education, health, and community-building.”
There are 19 Olympic-type team and individual sports, and 23-year-old hometown hero Chris Nikic is competing. When Chris first became involved with the Special Olympics it was with the intention of having fun and being a part of something greater than himself.
“When I was nine, I used to play golf and basketball for guys and I wanted to compete in the Special Olympics and the whole world needed to know that I can do the Ironman,” Chris says. So, the commitment began.
Chris started training so he could overcome physical obstacles with the goal of competing in triathlons. And in 2019, that dream turned into a reality when Chris completed his first triathlon. In January 2020, he went on to complete an Olympic distance triathlon and in May 2020 he completed a 70.3 Half Ironman.
Then on November 7, 2020, at the age of 21, Chris made history as he became the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a full-distance IRONMAN triathlon with a 16.46.09 finish line crossing time. He recalls the feelings running through him after accomplishing his goal.
“I heard the famous words: ‘you’re an ironman’. I felt nice after parents telling me I’m a hero to kids,” Chris says.
Marquis Johnson, a friend of Chris, who helps with his training and business management says it was an inspiration seeing Chris cross the finish line.
“It wasn’t a shocker because I’ve been around him and I know what he’s capable of, but it was more about seeing that he did it, “Johnson says. “The whole world was stopping but he kept going and that’s the biggest inspiration I got from it, is that no matter what’s going on just keep going,” Johnson says.
For all his hard work, Chris was awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance as part of the 2021 ESPY Awards.
In his day-to-day life, Chris is known for following his mission to honor God by being the best version of himself so that he can be an example to others. This is accomplished as he lives by the motto “1-percent better every day”.
The motto first started when Nik Nikic, Chris’ father, and Managing Partner of Sales Optimizer LLC, formulated a training program with Chris’s Unified Partner coach, Dan Grieb. According to Nikic, together they utilized a 1% better sales performance tool and adjusted it for Chris’ exercise to get 1% better, stronger, and faster every day. Chris says the motto helps him learn repetition while motivating him to fight harder.
While the goal is to grow every day, since the Ironman is a long-term commitment, Nikic says there are still some simple rules he has in place to ensure that Chris is prepared for training and receives the help he needs.
- Make Everything Fun- “We build fun into everything he does every day, and that’s part of my job to say: ‘hey what are we going to do today buddy?’ “We’re going to do swimming’- great, how do we make it fun?”
- We Avoid Pain- “We do not like pain and so we make sure that whatever he’s doing is slow and gradual and he improves a little bit at a time, so he doesn’t experience any real pain.”
- Let’s Just do One More- “And the game of one more is really a fun game. So, he did 20 push-ups yesterday, right? The game today is let’s just do one more.”
These three principles are then incorporated into all of Chris’ training workouts. According to Nikic, training hours and level of intensity vary depending on the day, but currently the focus is to increase Chris’ speed so that he can win.
“That’s a big goal by the way because his competitors in the states are so fast. They can’t do the Ironman distance like he can, but they are fast for a short distance,” Nikic says. “The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishers at the state championships were about 25 or 30 minutes faster than Chris. So, if Chris is going to compete with a chance to win it, he’s going to have to get about 30 minutes faster by June.”
Johnson believes that between training and Chris’ determination, this goal can be accomplished.
“I’m excited, it’s going to be major,” Johnson says. “He’s getting ready. It’s been a process but it’s so great to be a part of that process and see everything come together because he’s been using his disability as a superpower. So, this whole time he’s been training for endurance but now he’s training for speed and that’s been a process but over the past year he’s gotten so much faster.”
In addition to having the opportunity to compete and get 1% better every day through his involvement with the Special Olympics, Chris has benefitted in more ways than he could have ever imagined. “I enjoy getting a house, a business, community, friends, a girlfriend, inclusion, being a public speaker and I get to travel everywhere,” he says.
Nikic expressed how much of a blessing it has been to witness Chris flourish.
“It gives us a sense of relief because he can live a full and inclusive life, you know like we all dream for all our children. It especially makes us feel good because he’s such a good role model and example for other parents like us and other kids like him to say that they can achieve things they never thought possible,” Nikic says. “He has shown all of us–parents, siblings, friends, peers, the community, that our kids can do amazing things and the whole community benefits from them being included.”
As for Chris, he looks forward to competing here in Central Florida, where he has home court advantage. He says he only has one goal- “to win”!