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Chris Nikic, first Ironman finisher with Down syndrome, shares philosophy of 1% better

TODAY logo TODAY 10/26/2021 Meghan Holohan

When Chris Nikic, 22, started writing his book, he embraced the philosophy that allowed him to become the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman triathlon — gradually doing a little bit each day to reach his goals.

“In preparation for this, I would have Chris make notes every day about our experiences. So we would capture the journey and try to remember what all happened,” Chis Nikic's dad, Nik Nikic, 60, of Maitland, Florida, told TODAY. “It is also us documenting what we did and then talking about it and putting it into something that would be inspiring for others like Chris, other parents like us. But it’s also informative, something people could use to help them get started on a similar plan.”

The result is 1% Better: Reaching My Full Potential and How You Can Too, which Chris Nikic wrote with Nik Nikic and Don Yaeger. The book outlines how Chris Nikic tackles training by doing a little more each day so he can achieve great accomplishments, such as the finishing the Ironman or more recently, the Boston Marathon.

“Getting 1% better — you have to work hard,” Chris Nikic told TODAY.

That means if he starts with 10 sets of 10 crunches, for example, then the next day he does 11 sets. This helps him build a good foundation for training — and life — to help him accomplish his dreams. The great thing about it is that people can apply this mindset to exercise, work or achieving any of their own goals.

“He always does a little bit more or a little bit faster each time,” Nik Nikic said. “It requires a lot of patience to do the 1% … This is designed to be easy and long-term sustainable.”

While improving every day is integrated into Chris Nikic’s life, he and his dad also focus on enjoying life.

“We have a deal between the two of us: He has all the fun and I do all the work,” Nik Nikic said. “For him, all of this is fun.”

Making sure that training is fun keeps Chris Nikic committed. Finishing an Ironman (a 2.4-mile swim in open water, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles) in 17 hours requires hours of dedication. The love of the journey makes training feel like a joy not a chore.

“We talk about enjoying every day. We talk about the achievement of 1% better, giving you a stimulation that makes you excited about everything you do,” Nik Nikic said.

Chris Nikic follows three rules that help him create lifelong habits. Rule No. 1 is have fun. Rule No. 2 is “there can’t be any residual pain.” Rule No. 3 is “always just one more.”

“If you can do one more that stimulates the brain’s endorphins, the happy drugs, which then makes it even more fun and reinforces everything,” Nik Nikic said. “We’ve designed everything around those three rules.”

This also helps Chris Nikic avoid overtraining injuries, which remains essential in allowing him to continue to race. He plans on running the Boston Marathon again and the Tokyo Marathon next year.

“That’s why the 1% is so important because it goes so slow that you’re building strong foundations and you’re never pushing yourself beyond what you can do,” Nik Nikic said. “Chris hasn’t had an injury in forever. The only injury he’s had was in the Ironman when he fell off his bike and when he walked on the fire ants and they bit him everywhere.”

Chris Nikic also gives speeches around the country about his 1% better philosophy and life. He loves meeting people and learning when he has influenced others to pursue their dreams.

“They say that I give them hope,” he said. “(It’s) pretty cool.”

By following the © Courtesy Nikic family By following the

Chris Nikic often celebrates training or finishing a race with a meal from Chipotle. While he plans on competing in more races, including the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, which was canceled and rescheduled for May 2022, he also has more modest dreams. He hopes to get married and have his own place. For now, he’s enjoying “the journey” and the two hope that others will gain some insight into themselves or loved ones after reading the book.

“1% is pretty powerful,” Nik Nikic said. “Our hope is that people can take it and apply it in their life. It’s a really simple way to get them started on that journey to achieving their potential.”

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