I’m a Better Coach and Unified Partner Because of Chris and His Learning Style

Coach, Unified partner and guide Daniel Grieb reflects on his training journey with Chris Nikic, Special Olympics Florida, and his quest to be the first athlete with Down syndrome on record to complete a full Ironman distance race (140.6 miles).
Chris Nikic and Daniel Grieb competing together, running outside.
Chris Nikic and Daniel Grieb competing together.

Chris's journey to Ironman is more than a physical challenge, it is a mental awakening of what is truly possible. The method that Chris uses to learn the necessary triathlon skills (there are literally thousands of skills) is the 1% Better Each Day Principle developed by Chris and his father, Nik. This philosophy of 1% Better is how Nik is preparing Chris for life and is what Chris uses to improve as an athlete.

This formula works well for a young man with Down syndrome as well someone in my age group. As a 45 year old athlete, I have completed over 100 races, 5 Full Ironman and 10 half Ironman events. As I have started training with Chris, I have learned to focus on getting 1% better myself while witnessing Chris's processing, speed and confidence grow as he has gotten 1% better each day.

As Chris’ coach, Unified partner and guide, I used to be anxious at the thought that Chris might not complete a race. If he didn’t finish, he would be crushed. I would be crushed. His father Nik helped me deal with my fears by asking me the most freeing questions.

"Can you treat Chris just like any other athlete you would guide?”

“Of course,” I answered.

“Dan, if you are going to treat Chris like any other athlete, why are you concerned with his failure? Isn’t that the way you and I learn, via our failure? If Chris doesn't complete a race, isn't that the best place to learn life skills?”

As a coach, I have learned that the processing speed of athletes like Chris are a little slower. I have to make sure I explain myself fully, break things down into bite size pieces and push Chris at the proper level. Other than that, competitors like Chris don't want or need to be treated differently.

As a Unified partner and guide, I am never more than an arm’s length away. With things like open water swimming, Chris does swim rather well in open water. However, when we swim in the ocean together, we swim with a tether.

To compete at Chris’ level, it takes a team. Our level three coach, Head Coach Hector Torres, owner of Tri Peak Athlete, coaches both of us. He maintains the work ratio and workouts, evaluates Chris’ performance and coordinates the structure of the training that Chris, Hector, Nik and his amazing Special Olympics coach Simone and I do. Obviously, Chris’ parents put a lot of trust in me and are so grateful for the time I spend with Chris. But, the truth is I am the lucky one. I am the one with the sacred relationship and responsibility of working with their remarkable son.

It is so refreshing to work with an athlete absent of ego, completely committed to the sport and 100% unconditionally in love with his coaches and family. Chris's efforts challenge me to be better—to be just 1% better—than I was yesterday. If he can do what he is doing with limitations, what is my excuse, what is anyone’s excuse? You know what's even more amazing about working with Chris and some of his friends? They don't know they have "limitations." They just go out and do the best they can! What if we all forgot about our "limitations" and just did the best we could by getting 1% better every day?

Check back regularly for updates about Chris and his quest to compete at Ironman.

If you are interested in becoming a Special Olympics coach, visit our online training courses for coaches. Courses are free, available in several languages and take no more than 60 minutes to complete. Register here and get started today!

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