Chris Nikic’s Journey From Ironman to Runway

The motto for the Ironman triathlon is: “Anything is possible.” And Chris Nikic epitomizes those three words.

For the past 23 years Nikic, who was born with Down Syndrome, has overcome a host of challenges presented by his condition. But in his quest to prove he can overcome adversity, he set out to conquer one of the most grueling events in sport, a race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.

The completion of that event put Nikic into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person with Down Syndrome to finish an Ironman — in Florida in November 2020 at age 21 — and also won him an Espy. But Nikic, who is also an ambassador for the Special Olympics, has upped the ante and is preparing to toe the line at the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii, next month, followed by the New York City Marathon in November.

He’s got even bigger dreams for next year when he’ll run all six major marathons around the world as part of an Adidas initiative called Runner 321, where that bib number is presented to a Down Syndrome athlete to aid their participation in mainstream sports. That number indicates the third copy of chromosome 21 that leads to Down Syndrome.

But Nikic is not just an athlete. He has also created a charity, 1% Better, that aims to make physical fitness accessible and achievable to people with special needs. The charity got its name from Nikic’s quest to improve by just 1 percent a day until a goal is met. “I want to give people the same chances I’ve had,” he said.

On Monday, the fashion industry will meet Nikic when he takes a break from training to hit the catwalk during New York Fashion Week. He’ll be featured in the Runway of Dreams show where over 60 models with varying disabilities and backgrounds will sport adaptive collections from J.C. Penney, Target, Kohl’s, Magnetic Me, No Limits, Steve Madden, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, Zappos.com, Adidas, French Toast Adaptive, Stemwear and Peerless Clothing. 

That night, Nikic will be presented with the Runway of Dreams Foundation’s Inspirational Achievement Award. He’ll also be modeling for Adidas, which has created a running shoe for him, and he’ll be joined on the runway that night by his girlfriend Adrienne, who is autistic.

Although he could have tackled shorter triathlons, Nikic wanted to attack the pinnacle of the sport to prove it was possible for someone with Down Syndrome to overcome the odds. It was part of his desire to live a more-inclusive life and achieve his goals: “I wanted to make my own money, own my own house, my own car and do an Ironman.” 

Mission accomplished — Nikic has managed to achieve all three.

Nikic, who said he’s modeled in the past, is most comfortable in sweats, a T-shirt and flip-flops when he’s hanging out at home in Florida, and will dress that up with jeans and a “nice shirt” if he’s out on the town with Adrienne. And when he’s training, he opts for compression shorts and tops or a bathing suit because that’s what he feels is most comfortable. 

But it’s his footwear that has historically been an issue. People with Down Syndrome have small, flat feet and Nikic was relegated to wearing children’s sneakers — not good for running marathons. He used to experience pain, blisters and bleeding on long runs, until he started working with Adidas. Now he’s pain free.  

Jennifer Thomas, senior director of sports marketing for Adidas, explained: “We worked with Chris to get foot scans and exact measurements of his feet so that we could build a shoe tailored to his specific needs and rid him of the foot pain that he had suffered in the past. Working from the adiZero Boston 10 as our base model, we gave him more volume to the shoe and added the support that he needed without the addition of any other insoles. Chris wanted a shoe that would not only allow him to run his best, but also be a stable platform for when he is riding the bike (he doesn’t wear cycling shoes). We also integrated Chris’ favorite colors, orange and blue, which also represent his foundation 1% Better.”

Although there are no immediate plans to offer the shoe commercially, Thomas said, “Moving forward, we may create a shoe that could help other athletes who have the same needs as Chris. It would need to be an adaptive shoe where lacing and fit aren’t an issue. If we move forward with developing such a shoe, we want the project to help not only the Down Syndrome community but also other athletes who struggle with shoe fit and lacing.”

She went on to call Nikic “an inspiration to so many athletes around the world, proving that sport has the power to change lives.  Chris’ 1 percent better mindset is showing that when we do not put constraints around our expectations, anything is possible. His dedication, positive mindset and attitude are truly incredible, and we are honored to be working with such a positive role model.”

Although he’s excited to show off his shoes at the Runway of Dreams, he’s still focused on his training for the big Kona race. The day before his chat with WWD, he completed a 13-mile run in 85 degrees with 85 percent humidity, so he’s feeling confident.

“I know I can do it, but it will be very hard,” he said.

He’s also looking forward to meeting top pro Lucy Charles-Barclay in Kona and introducing her to Adrienne, who aspires to do an Ironman one day and admires Charles-Barclay.

Meeting his heroes is becoming more commonplace for Nikic as his fame grows. He’s embraced social media to increase his visibility and provide encouragement to others facing challenges. And it’s working. But he shrugs off his notoriety, saying: “I’d be honored to be famous.”

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