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The first Ironman athlete with Down syndrome sets new goals: the Boston and New York City Marathons

Man becomes first with Down syndrome to finish triathlon
Young man becomes first person with Down syndrome to finish Ironman triathlon 01:55

Chris Nikic made history last year when he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Ironman triathlon. Next, he'll be adding to his list of achievements when he runs the Boston Marathon on Monday and the New York City Marathon on November 3.

"I'm ready for it," the 22-year-old told CBS News in a Zoom interview as his father, Nik, hugged him. Chris admitted he's also looking forward to the fun and parties. 

Last November, Chris earned a Guinness World Record for becoming the first person with Down syndrome to cross the finish line at a full Ironman competition. The milestone — a race that featured swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles — once seemed far out of reach for Chris, according to a new self-help book he co-wrote with his father. 

Chris Nikic
Chris Nikic is awarded a medal after finishing Ironman Florida on November 7, 2020, in Panama City Beach, Florida. Michael Reaves/Getty

The book, titled "1% Better: Reaching My Full Potential and How You Can Too," follows Chris' journey leading up to the Ironman competition and beyond. One of the pivotal moments came shortly after his birth: doctors telling Nik and his wife, Patty, that Chris had Down syndrome and ventricular septal defect — a hole in his heart. 

One of the doctors told them, "Whatever dreams we had formulated for our child should be abandoned," the book said. Months later, they performed open-heart surgery on Chris, and seven days later, doctors saw irregularities in his heart, saying they needed to implement a permanent pacemaker because there would be "zero chance" it could work on his own, the book said. 

Nik and Patty asked family members and friends to pray and asked doctors to test Chris' heart again, which they eventually did. On the following day, doctors discovered Chris didn't need a pacemaker. 

"We don't know what happened," Nik told CBS News. "So, we believe God had a special plan for him because he could not have done what he did with a pacemaker on."

"His life would have been completely different. So, that was the turning point."

Throughout the majority of his childhood, Patty was responsible for Chris' overall care and education while Nik led his sales consulting business, according to the book. There came a point where the family wondered what Chris' future would look like as a person with Down syndrome. 

A triathlete's mentor 02:28

"This can't be it," Nik said. "There has to be more and so, we hit a breaking point where we just would not accept that that was the rest of his life."

When Chris was 18, he developed an affinity for exercising after working out with his father, and eventually took on athletics. He gradually changed his perception of what he could accomplish.

"He started to enjoy it and started to get a little bit better, right?" Nik said. "Then his vision of his future came out. That's when he wrote on the wall that he was gonna be a world champ... We just listened to him carefully. We didn't dismiss what he was telling us as cute and impossible, we actually took it to heart and we believed it. Then we helped him achieve his goals and his dreams."

Since then, the Florida native has become a role model because of his feats and global visibility as an athlete with Down syndrome. He was awarded two ESPYS last year –  one for best male athlete with a disability and the Jimmy V award, which is given to a "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." His social media pages are filled with photos and videos of him training for different events and standing alongside celebrities and professional athletes. 

His new book, which was released Tuesday, said members of the Special Olympics USA Games called him to announce they added a triathlon sprint to the 2022 event and he will be participating. It's the second time the USA Games will offer the sport, the last time being in 2014. 

While the book was meant to give readers a way "to pursue their dreams and to be the best version of themselves," Nik said the book was also written for parents of children with Down syndrome in mind.

"Our hope is that this triggers the people who can influence the development of our kids to think differently, starting with the parents, the therapists, the teachers, the volunteers, the coaches," Nik told CBS News. "For them, to start to view our kids just a little differently, and to give them the possibilities and the opportunity to achieve their full potential." 

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