Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once famously said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.” This quote is still offered as solace in the face of the most daunting tasks one can face in life, but to those who are truly determined to succeed – regardless of their presumed chances or the scale of the challenge ahead – it is used as sage counsel. By focusing on the bigger picture and breaking it down into measurable, bite-size pieces that can be more easily tackled, even the most oppressive task at hand can be whittled away until its completion.
Chris Nikic of Maitland, FL is one story of true inspiration who was able to do just that, and it landed him in the history books as the first person with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman competition.
Since birth, doctors and educators told Nikic’s parents of his limits rather than his opportunities. He had open-heart surgery at just five months old, leaving him with poor balance and a weakened body. Nikic didn’t learn to walk until he was four years old. His parents, afraid of the possibility of choking, fed their son baby food until he was six. Growing up, Nikic changed elementary schools seven times until his parents found one they felt was suitable for their son.
“I always felt left out, excluded, isolated,” Nikic told the New York Times last month, and who could blame him? Being told to look at the walls around your life, and not the beauty of the world outside them, is enough to make anyone feel alone.
As a young teenager, Nikic found his passion in sports. He fell in love with basketball, bike-riding, swimming, and running, but another round of surgeries on his ear left him out of the game. Refusing to confine himself to the benches, however, Nikic doubled-down on his passion. He was introduced to a local training group to help build his endurance, as well as volunteer coach Dan Grieb. In October of 2019, Nikic and Grieb began training for the upcoming Ironman competition, meeting before sunrise to go for 10-mile runs or 50-mile bicycle rides. Soon, the 10-mile runs became 15-mile runs, then 20 and 25. Morning bike rides went from 50-miles to 60, then 75, then 100 or more.
Those close to Nikic began to see changes beyond just extra added muscle. His mind seemed sharper. He had an easier time paying attention. Nikic was beginning to find confidence in himself.
“Success is a habit,” and not a condition according to Nikic. Slowly but surely, and with the help of Coach Grieb, his friends, and his family, Nikic was seeing the small improvements in himself that came with each passing day. In August of 2019, his time for a 13-mile sprint was one hour and forty-one minutes. By January 2020, Nikic was able to complete a 32-mile Olympic run in just under four-and-a-half hours. By this past May, Nikic was able to complete a half Ironman – 70 miles – in just under eight-and-a-half hours.
By focusing on the bigger picture, his goal of completing an Ironman competition, and within that focusing on the daily goal of improving a little more each day, Nikic found inspiration to form the “1% Challenge” which he uses to help raise awareness for Down Syndrome. The challenge consists of two steps, both of which are the foundation of Nikic’s philosophy: first, you set a goal you want to achieve and focus on improving 1% every day for 30 days in order to achieve the goal. Secondly, you help someone else to do the same.
“You influence what you focus on,” says Nikic, “if you wake up every day thinking ‘how do I get 1% better today?’ you will be infinitely better off than the alternative.”
In Nikic’s case, by focusing on improving his health and setting a record by completing an Ironman competition, he has not only been able to improve his own wellbeing; he uses his influence and platform to raise awareness and help others.
By refusing to give in, and proving to himself what he is truly capable of, Nikic has become an inspiration in the truest sense of the word. In a time when people aroudn the world are looking for beacons of hope, Nikic and his 1% challenge shine bright and show no signs of stopping soon.