Special Olympics and Ironman athlete Chris Nikic inspires others to follow in his footsteps

November, Chris Nikich, Special Olympics athlete, became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. Nikich, 21, completed the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile marathon at the Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds, 14 minutes ahead of the 17-hour mark. During his preparation and participation in the race, Nikich inspired others to follow in his footsteps. With his message to others with Down syndrome to be one percent better every day in all aspects of life, Nikich may be the first, but he certainly won’t be the last. For his friend and young protégé Caleb Prewitt, 14, the completion of Nikich’s Iron Man showed that anything is possible. Caleb’s mother, Karen Prewitt, explains in her own words what it means to have a role model like Nikich in her son’s world.

If we had that poster of Chris, it would be in Caleb’s room. Chris is Caleb’s hero.

It’s been months since Chris finished Iron Man and Caleb is still talking about it. When Caleb starts working at other Special Olympics clinics that specialize in triathlon, he keeps asking: Will Chris be there? He loves Chris. He likes Chris. He wants to be like Chris.

Editor’s comment: ESPN is the worldwide title sponsor of Special Olympics® Unified Sports, which enables people with and without intellectual disabilities to participate in sports through the power of sport.

I don’t remember when I stopped crying after Chris crossed the Iron Man finish line, to be honest. I couldn’t stop crying and crying. And I know Caleb felt it too. Those tears were there because he succeeded against all odds, against all barriers. Not just the barriers of society, but those of his physical body. There were times when we weren’t sure if Chris would make it. Times when we knew he was struggling during the race. And the fact that he crossed the finish line with time to spare is something I will never forget. At the time, I had the impression that he was carrying a community of people with Down syndrome on his shoulders.

Caleb is only 14, but when he was born, we didn’t know of any behavioral patterns with Down syndrome. There were no athletes, no speakers, no one doing what Chris does today.

He’s a good friend. I’m just helping him. He is inspired and wants to do more, Chris (right) said of his friendship and mentorship with Caleb (left). After watching Chris Ironman, Caleb began training for the triathlon. Karen Prewitt.

When we start talking about training for a triathlon or doing the race, I explain to Caleb that he’s going to have a performance like Chris. They’re going swimming. You’re going to ride your bike. They’re going to run away, just like all those things Chris did. If you do, I’ll tell him.

We met Chris last summer at a bike camp in Orlando, Florida for kids with Down syndrome. Children with Down syndrome may have difficulty riding a bike because of their balance, but fortunately there are programs from local Down syndrome associations to help them learn to ride a bike properly and feel confident on two wheels.

Rick had learned to ride a bike at a similar camp years before, and that summer Rick and his father Nick had been invited to speak at the camp. It was incredible to know that Chris had learned to bike at camp a few years earlier and was now training for the Ironman. It was inspiring. And when he said he was preparing for Iron Man, he immediately felt that opened the door to new possibilities.

Caleb wanted to meet Chris right away. I asked Nick if we could meet up with them after camp, and Nikich’s family invited us to their house so Caleb could do a mini workout with Chris. Caleb and Chris spent the day together, and I still remember the constant smile on Caleb’s face that day. All the while, Chris encouraged Caleb to follow in his footsteps. Grab the bike and hold on, Chris told him. Other things to do, like strength training and swimming. Caleb was convinced and excited.

How does Chris encourage Caleb to become 1% better every day? He said to her: Just work, be yourself, be in the moment. Karen Prewitt.

Shortly after their first meeting, Nick asked me if we had ever considered getting Caleb into triathlon. I remember thinking, well, he’s still learning to ride a bike. No, we haven’t thought about that. But almost a month into bike camp, Caleb has mastered the bike. I couldn’t believe it, but I could. He was inspired by Chris. This encounter had an impact on him.

We only met Chris in person a few times because of the pandemic. But every time, it has a big impact on Caleb. It was immediately clear that they would become buddies. It was a buddy mentorship, and Chris even called him his little brother after the first interaction. Each time the bond with the athletes gets stronger. Chris asks Caleb, how is your training going?

He pushes Caleb to be better than 1%. Always be 1% better, every day – that’s what we’re putting into practice now in the classroom and in life. We’re trying to increase Caleb’s mileage. We’re trying to pick up the pace. We’re trying to increase his movements in the pool to make sure he’s in good shape and so on. We try to make sure he understands that there are no limits to what he can do and that he can always be better if he thinks about it – as Chris does.

Chris is so cool, Caleb said after their time together last summer. Although they have only met a few times, Caleb considers Chris a role model and a hero. Karen Prewitt.

When Caleb was 3 years old, he began participating in the Special Olympics. There was a program for young athletes, and we spent his entire childhood trying to teach him the fundamentals of the sport: running properly, walking on the balance beam, hitting the golf ball off the tee. When he turned 8, he was allowed to do certain sports. And Florida, where we live in Jacksonville, offers a wide variety of sports. Caleb took the opportunity to play three different sports in his first summer. Every time he says bowling is my favorite, or athletics is my favorite, or golf is my favorite.

As a mother, I was happy that he wanted to play sports and that he enjoyed it. I was in gym class at school and have been running all my life. I think it is very important that children with Down syndrome are active from an early age and grow up in an environment where they stay active and have a healthy lifestyle.

Throughout his life, I have seen how important exercise can be to Caleb’s mind and body. Going into the field, working on energy, working on the frustrations he may have because he can’t always verbally convey what he feels. And that can be very frustrating. But through sport and exercise, he learned to free himself. I have seen him gain confidence and regain his strength.

As soon as he met Chris, Caleb wanted to follow in his footsteps. But it wasn’t until November that Iron Man learned what it meant to follow in his footsteps. We went to Panama City Beach to cheer on Chris and see him cross the finish line.

It wasn’t long before Caleb began participating in Special Olympics triathlon camps after graduating from Chris Ironman. I think about the impact Chris has had on Caleb’s life, and I know he inspires thousands of others on their own journey.

In the early years of Caleb’s life, there still seemed to be a closed mindset about what people with Down syndrome could accomplish in their lives. And to see Chris cross the finish line now, to see people in the community become chefs, athletes, models and more, it’s very exciting. The potential is limitless for Caleb.

The seventh. In November, Chris crossed the finish line of the Ironman in Florida with his guide and coach Dan Mushroom. He became the first Iron Man finisher with Down syndrome. Michael Reeves/Getty Images

Caleb recently completed his second triathlon. It was his first time swimming in open water, and I wasn’t sure if he was ready, but he did it. He was swimming in the lake. And he remained very calm and composed. He did a great job. He swam around the buoy six times. He can now cycle up to 14 miles. It can run up to 4 miles. He picks up all the pieces, just like Chris.

Next month, he heads to South Florida for his third triathlon run. In this clinic, he will combine these three elements: Swimming, cycling, running. He’ll really look like Chris. And he knows it.

I’m excited about Caleb’s future. And I know that Chris has already made an impact on his future. I think Caleb has a lot of potential and should use it. It’s up to him to rise to the occasion, but with the right training, coaching and advice from people like Chris, I know he can achieve anything he wants.

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