In Little League it’s cute for a four-year-old to sit in the outfield, oblivious to the T-ball game being played around him.
But expectations change as athletes become more skilled. When watching those at the level of the Olympics, World Games or pro teams, “cute” changes to “amazing” when a person sees how God gives humans the ability to function beyond typical expectation.
And while low expectations are the norm of those born with Down syndrome, Chris Nikic exceeded everyone’s expectations at the age of 21 when he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full Ironman triathlon in 2020 in Panama City Beach, Florida. His father Nik chronicled his journey in the book “1% Better: Reaching My Potential and How You Can Too.”
“My hope was that Chris’ story would inspire other parents and members of the community to look at our kids differently and realize they can succeed and be more independent,” Nik explained. “We just needed to show them a system that works better for them and helps them achieve their potential.”
In “1% Better,” Nik shared what the doctor told him and his wife, Patty: “We would be able to call ourselves very fortunate if Chris could learn to tie his shoes. Chris would always be dependent on us for everything. He could never hold down a job or live anyplace by himself. If we could afford this option, we’d probably want to consider institutionalizing him at some point.
“Whatever dreams we had formulated for our child should be abandoned. Why torture ourselves with hopes that could never come true?”
God is in it
However, from the time he and Patty started dating, God was in their relationship, Nik said, and even when hearing the discouraging news, they knew He had a plan. Abortion was never an option, neither was giving up on Chris.
“I believe God was planting seeds and providing a path for us to follow, that He had a bigger vision and we had to trust it especially when everyone else kept saying I was crazy,” Nik said. “The more I heard that, the more I believed God has something big planned for Chris.”
Nik himself had a difficult childhood, spending his early years in a communist culture. When he was 10, his family escaped to the U.S.
College was only possible through a basketball scholarship he earned despite not being athletic. This determination to succeed against all odds prepared him to raise a child with Chris’ supposed limitations, though, in fact, he and Patty didn’t see limitations.
“You could argue that our belief was misplaced, but both Patty and I had high expectations for Chris in terms of what he would be able to learn and how independent he could one day become,” Nik said.
Academics and athletics
As soon as Chris came home from the hospital, his days were filled with therapy. When it was time to start school, his parents tried different educational environments until landing on a small private school that focused on each student’s learning style.
While Patty was involved with academics and care, Nik concentrated on athletics, getting Chris into Special Olympics golf, track and basketball and guiding him to develop a love for sports.
“He could finish dead last but still be ecstatic, walking up to people and high-fiving them and saying, ‘Nice job,’” Nik related. “I wished I could be a little more like him. I would look at him after a race and think, ‘With all of your disadvantages, how can you be so happy?’”
“1% Better” not only tells Chris’ story, but the principles Nik used for triathlon training. Each day he would have Chris do “one more.” If he did five situps on Monday, Tuesday six were expected. Discouragement was lessened by making small changes, and Chris became stronger and more skilled each day.
‘An amazing journey’
“I have one verse framed at home: Galatians 6:9–10: ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,’” he said.
He noted, “Life is an amazing journey and with God anything is possible. He has taught me that our potential as humans is so much greater than anything we believe. He has also taught me to enjoy every moment and be thankful for my gifts.”
“1% Better” can be found at Amazon and other major retailers. For more about Chris visit www.chrisnikic.com.