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One percent better: Chris Nikic puts triathlon in the limelight again

Chris Nikic, the first person with Down's syndrome to complete an iron-distance triathlon, will put the sport in the spotlight again on Saturday night.

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Triathlon will take centre stage in one of the biggest nights in the U.S. sporting calendar on Saturday when the amazing Chris Nikic receives the prestigious Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYS.

A huge national audience of millions on ABC will watch Chris receive the hallowed award at the annual ceremony which is fronted by the world’s biggest sports broadcaster.

Chris became a national star at the age of 21 last November when he completed a very special achievement – becoming the first person with Down’s syndrome to finish an iron-distance triathlon.

Chris Nikic an Ironman

Nikic took on the mighty challenge of IRONMAN Florida, and despite a number of setbacks along the way he completed the course (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run) in 16:46:09 – just under the 17-hour cutoff mark.

That epic performance was captured in a brilliant ESPN SportsCenter documentary entitled ’17 Hours: The Chris Nikic Story’, which aired earlier this year. Chris’ mantra of becoming ‘1 percent better’ every single day has since taken America by storm.

The man himself is understandably proud of the latest recognition for his achievements, explaining: “Wow, what an honour to receive the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance and to be included with such an amazing group of people.

“As a Special Olympics ambassador, I represent millions of athletes around the world who can now believe that inclusion is real for all of them. Thank you for me, but more importantly for the Down’s syndrome community and my fellow Special Olympics athletes.”

Chris Nikic: A life full of battles

Chris was born in October 1999, and within five months underwent his first major challenge – open heart surgery to deal with two holes in his heart. The challenges would keep coming – dad Nik said “he’s been sick his whole life” – but this young man defeated them all.

It wasn’t just the physical challenges either – the battle for inclusion was and still is very real for people like Chris.

A tearful Nik, speaking in the documentary, said: “Everything you do is a challenge, it’s a fight. Other fathers don’t get to experience that. You have to battle everything in order to just get them to be included.

Chris played several sports growing up, but the love affair with triathlon began in 2017 and Nik takes up the story.

“First up we said ‘let’s find something we can do together, right’ because i know he likes to have fun and I know we needed to interact together. And it was just the most amazing thing that’s ever happened”.

When Chris took up triathlon, he couldn’t swim a length in a pool and he couldn’t cycle more than a few yards without falling. Just two of the problems people with Down’s syndrome deal with are poor balance and slow reaction time.

But as the man himself explains, quitting was not an option. He says quite simply: “When doctors say I can’t do anything, the first thing that came out of my mouth – ‘Don’t tell me that I’ll fail’.”

In October 2019 came the next step, when the dream of completing an iron-distance race was born.

“I thought what if Chris could do something that’s never been done – what an impact that would have on his life and others like him around the world,” said Nik.

“I said ‘look, what if we just do an ironman’. He says ‘what’s that’ and I said ‘It’s just a little longer than a sprint’ and he says ‘okay, let’s do it Dad’.”

Chris had three dreams in life (to buy a house, buy a car ‘and marry a smoking hot blonde from Chicago’) – and now he added a goal, IRONMAN Florida on November 7. 2020. To get there the mantra was to get 1 percent better, every day.

Raceday at IRONMAN Florida

Over the coming months making those small improvements every day would put Chris in a position to achieve that goal.

Raceday arrived, and just as the rest of life for Chris, it came with new challenges. Firstly from the poison inflicted by hundreds of fire ants when he stepped on them during a nutrition stop. Secondly from crashing his bike 50 miles into the bike leg. Thirdly from pure exhaustion during the closing marathon.

Chris though, just like the first 21 years of his life, overcame every challenge to finish just inside that 17-hour cutoff point.

Coach Dan Grieb, beside him the whole way, summed up the achievement that day, saying: “The greatest thing that Chris did by crossing that finish line is he provided hope”.

Dad Nik meanwhile reflected: “When I saw him coming towards the finish line, I started first thinking about other parents and their little kids with Down’s syndrome, can now look at Chris and say ‘our child can accomplish something’.”

Final word, of course, goes to Chris himself. As the documentary closes he’s asked by his dad what he says when people tell him he can’t do something. The answer is firm and simple – “I say, I’m gonna prove you wrong’.”

It’s a mantra which has carried Chris to amazing heights during his 21 years so far. On Saturday night it will take him even higher. The whole of America, and the wider world, can again watch him provide hope to so many. One percent better again.

ESPYS start time and TV details

The ESPYS 2021 ceremony takes place on Saturday July 10 and will air live on ABC. The show starts at 2000 ET in the United States, which is 0100 BST Sunday.

The Jimmy V Award

In 2007, Women’s College basketball coach Kay Yow became the very first recipient of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. Past recipients include Eric LeGrand, Anthony Robles, George Karl, Dick and Rick Hoyt, Stuart Scott, Devon and Leah Still, Craig Sager, Jarrius Robertson, Jim Kelly, Rob Mendez, and Taquarius Wair.

The award, which annually shines a light on incredible storylines and emotional narratives, has produced some of the most memorable moments in sports TV history.

What are the ESPYS?

The ESPYS help to raise awareness and funds for the V Foundation for Cancer Research, the charity founded by ESPN and the late basketball coach Jim Valvano at the first ESPYS back in 1993. ESPN has helped raise close to $134 million for the V Foundation over the past 28 years.

Graham Shaw
Written by
Graham Shaw
Graham has been involved with TRI247 & RUN247 since the summer of 2021. Since then he has provided strategic direction for all news and is passionate about the growth of triathlon as a fan sport.

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