(Reuters) - Finishing a maiden Ironman is a huge moment for any triathlete but when 21-year-old Florida resident Chris Nikic crossed the line at the weekend he became the first athlete with Down's Syndrome to achieve the feat.
Nearly 17 hours after embarking on the 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full marathon, Nikic arrived just inside the cut-off point for the Panama City Beach Ironman event.
His effort earned him a place in the Guinness World Records https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/635648-first-person-with%C2%A0downs-syndrome-to-complete-an-ironman%C2%AE-triathlon and thousands of social media followers have been inspired by his determination to tackle one of sport's toughest challenges.
Spectators cheered as Nikic crossed the line on Saturday with his trainer Dan Grieb, who acted as guide, well after dark and with 14 minutes to spare to record a time.
The official Ironman Twitter account said he had "shattered barriers" and proving "anything is possible!"
A YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zHjPq-FYCI shows Nikic in action with his proud father Nik close to tears in the transition zone before the marathon section which he completed in six hours 18 minutes.
"You are almost an Ironman buddy. You're two thirds of an Ironman" his father says.
Nikic, who was born with the genetic condition that causes degrees of learning disability and slower physical development, took up triathlon three years ago after four ear surgeries kept him living a more sedentary lifestyle and gaining weight.
He set a target of becoming 1% fitter each day, beginning with one push-up. Now he trains six days a week.
"He's training with people, and in the process of training with him they included him in what they do," Nik told the Panama City News Herald. "They realized he was a pretty neat kid.
"They invite him to dinners and lunches and parties... this whole project has given him a whole new world of inclusion.
"Ironman has served as his platform to become a step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy and leadership. It's about being an example to other kids and families that face similar barriers, proving no dream or goal is too high."
On his Instagram account, which has ballooned to 71,000 followers, Nikic said he was focused on his next goal.
"Goal set and achieved. Time to set a new and BIGGER Goal for 2021," he wrote. "Whatever it is the strategy is the same. 1% Better every day. YES, I did the work but I had angels helping me."
Coach Grieb, an Ironman veteran, said working with Nikic had opened his eyes to a new world.
"Best 16 hours, 46 minutes and 9 seconds of my life!" he posted on Instagram.
American tennis great Billie Jean King, a lifelong campaigner for inclusion, offered her congratulations.
"No limits. No boundaries," she Tweeted. "Keep dreaming big and going for it, Chris!"
Nikic is now targeting the 2022 Special Olympics in Florida.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)