In November, Special Olympics athlete Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. Nikic, 21, finished a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run at the Ironman Florida competition in Panama City Beach in 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds, just 14 minutes under the 17-hour cutoff time. Throughout his training and completion of the race, Nikic inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Spreading his message to others in the Down syndrome community to be “1 percent better” every single day in every aspect of life, Nikic might be the first but he certainly won’t be the last. For his friend and young mentee Caleb Prewitt, 14, Nikic’s Ironman completion showcased that anything is possible. Caleb’s mother, Karen Prewitt, explains in her own words what it means to have a role model like Nikic in her son’s world.
If we had a poster of Chris, it would be in Caleb’s room. Chris is Caleb’s hero.
It’s been months since Chris completed the Ironman, and Caleb is still talking about it. As Caleb starts to engage in more Special Olympics clinics that focus on triathlons, he always asks, “Is Chris going to be there?” He loves Chris. He loves to see Chris. He wants to be just like Chris.
I don’t remember when I stopped crying after Chris crossed the Ironman finish line, to be honest. I couldn’t help but just cry and cry. And I know that Caleb felt it, too. Those tears were there because he did it against all the odds, against all the barriers. Not only the barriers of society, but the barriers of his physical body. There were moments when we weren’t sure if Chris was going to finish. Moments where we knew he was struggling during the run. And the fact that he crossed the finish line with time to spare was something I’ll never forget. It felt like in that moment he was carrying the Down syndrome community on his shoulders.
Caleb is only 14, but when he was born, we weren’t aware of any role models with Down syndrome. There were no athletes, no public speakers, nobody that was doing what Chris is doing today.
When we start to talk about what it takes to train for a triathlon or to actually complete an event, I explain to Caleb that he’s going to be performing like Chris did. “You’re going to be swimming. You’re going to be biking. You’re going to be running, just like all those things that Chris did. You are going to do,” I tell him.
The first time we met Chris was this past summer at a bike camp in Orlando, Florida, for kids with Down syndrome. It can be difficult for kids with Down syndrome to ride a bike because of their balance, but luckily there are programs through local Down syndrome associations that help teach them how to properly ride a bike and feel confident on two wheels.
Years earlier, Chris learned how to ride a bike at a similar camp, and over the summer, Chris and his father, Nik, were asked to speak at the camp. To know that Chris went from learning how to ride a bike at camp just years earlier to training for an Ironman, it was amazing. It was inspiring. And when he said that he was training for an Ironman, it immediately felt like it opened the door for possibilities.
Caleb wanted to meet Chris right away. I asked Nik if we could meet them after the camp, and the Nikic family invited us over to their house so that Caleb could do a mini training session with Chris. Caleb and Chris got to spend the day together, and I still remember the permanent smile on Caleb’s face that day. The entire time, Chris encouraged Caleb to follow in his footsteps. “Pick up bike riding and stay with it,” Chris told him. “Do other things like strength and swimming.” Caleb was convinced and inspired.
Shortly after their first meeting, Nik asked me if we ever thought about Caleb doing a triathlon. I remember thinking, “OK, well he’s still learning how to ride a bike. No, we haven’t really thought about that yet.” But almost one month after the bike camp, Caleb had mastered riding a bike. I couldn’t believe it, but I could. He was inspired by Chris. That encounter made an impact on him.
We’ve only met Chris in person a handful of times because of the pandemic. But each time, it makes a huge impact on Caleb. Right away, it was apparent that they were going to be buddies. It was really like a buddy-type mentorship, and Chris even called him his “little brother” after that first interaction. Each time, their bond as athletes grows. Chris will ask Caleb, “How’s your training coming?”
He’s really pushing Caleb to be 1 percent better. “Always be 1 percent better,” each and every day — which we now practice in training and life. We’re trying to increase Caleb’s mileage. We’re trying to increase his speed. We’re trying to increase his movement in the pool to make sure he’s got good form and all that. We’re trying to make sure he understands that there are no limits on him, and that he can always be better if he puts his mind to it — just like Chris.
When Caleb was 3 he started getting involved with the Special Olympics. There was a young athletes’ program, and we made sure to put him in there throughout his childhood to learn the basics of sports: running properly, walking on a balance beam, hitting a golf ball off a tee. When he turned 8, he was eligible for specific sports. And in Florida, where we reside in Jacksonville, there’s a wide variety of sports offered. Caleb jumped at the opportunity to play three different sports that first summer. At any one time, he would say, “Bowling is my favorite” or “Track is my favorite” or “Golf is my favorite.”
As his mother, I was thrilled that he wanted to play sports and that he actually enjoyed it. I was a P.E. major in college, and I’m a lifelong runner. And I believe that it’s so important for kids with Down syndrome to be active from a young age and to raise them in an environment where they stay active and lead a healthy lifestyle.
Throughout his life, I’ve seen how important physical activity can be for Caleb’s mind and body. Getting out there, working off energy, working off all the frustration that he might have because he can’t always communicate verbally what he’s feeling. And that can be extremely frustrating. But, through sports and physical activity, he’s learned how to have a release. I’ve seen him gain confidence and newfound strength.
Since first meeting Chris, Caleb wanted to follow in his footsteps. But it wasn’t really until the Ironman in November that he fully experienced what it meant to follow in his footsteps. We traveled to Panama City Beach to cheer on Chris and watch him cross the finish line.
It wasn’t long before Caleb started participating in triathlon clinics with the Special Olympics after Chris’ Ironman completion. I think about the impact that Chris has had on Caleb’s life alone, and I just know that he’s inspiring thousands of others in their own unique journeys.
During Caleb’s early years, it felt like there was still a closed mindset on what people with Down syndrome could accomplish in their lives. And now, to see Chris cross that finish line, to see people in the community become chefs, athletes, models and more, it’s very exciting. The potential is unlimited for Caleb.
Recently, Caleb completed his second triathlon clinic. For the first time, he swam in open water — something I wasn’t sure if he was ready for, but he did it. He swam in a lake. And he remained pretty calm and collected. He did a great job. He swam around the buoy six times. He can ride up to 14 miles on his bike now. He can run up to four miles. He’s putting together all the pieces, just like Chris.
Next month, we will travel down south in Florida for his third triathlon clinic. At that clinic that he will put all three elements together: swimming, biking, running. He’s going to really be just like Chris. And he knows that.
I’m excited for Caleb’s future. And I know that Chris impacted his future already. I think there’s a lot of potential that Caleb has and it’s up to him to use it. It’s up to him to rise to the occasion, but with the right coaching, right mentoring and right leadership from those like Chris, I know he can do whatever he puts his mind to.