Judge helps guide a young athlete to a world record
The most thrilling victory in U.S. District Judge Carlos Mendoza’s ironman triathlon career doesn’t belong to him, at least not technically.
It belongs to an astonishing newcomer in one of the world’s most grueling sports — Chris Nikic, a 21-year-old Maitland man and friend who Judge Mendoza spent the last year helping to train.
On November 7, Nikic set a Guinness World Record when he became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an ironman triathlon.
Judge Mendoza paced Nikic through the swimming and running segments of the race, and he couldn’t be prouder of his trainee.
“Not only has this never been done before, it had never even been tried,” Judge Mendoza said. “The ripples from this splash are going to affect a lot of people positively for a long time.”
Under ironman rules, Nikic had 17 hours to complete a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, a 112-mile bicycle ride through Panama City Beach, and a 26.2-mile marathon run. Nikic did it in 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds.
Congratulatory messages poured in from around the world, including tennis great Billie Jean King and runner Kara Goucher.
Nikic, a Special Olympics athlete, posted a message on Instagram to his 33,000 followers: “Ironman. Goal set and achieve,” he wrote. “Time to set a new and Bigger Goal for 2021.”
To understand the magnitude of the accomplishment, Judge Mendoza said, consider that the route was lined with cheering strangers, some of whom traveled across the country after the story exploded on social media.
A spectator from Utah jogged next to Nikic for nearly 10 miles and beamed live cell phone video to a sister back home.
“She has a child with Down syndrome and she found Chris’s story to be so inspirational,” Judge Mendoza said.
Judge Mendoza is a former JAG officer, prosecutor, assistant city attorney, and circuit judge who was appointed by President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy in Florida’s U.S. Middle District in 2014.
After his confirmation, when he and his family moved to the Orlando area, he joined the Central Florida Tri Club, resuming a sport he abandoned in his 20s when he was beginning his legal career, and his radiation oncologist wife was still in med school.
“We didn’t have the time or the resources as a young married couple expecting our first child,” he said. “I promised myself that when the kids were older and I could find the time, I would jump back in.”
It’s an expensive sport, Judge Mendoza said.
“Some of these bikes cost as much as my first car,” he said. Earlier this year, Judge Mendoza flew to New Zealand for the last sanctioned ironman before COVID-19 temporarily shut down the sport.
Judge Mendoza met Nikic in 2019 after a friend suggested the club invite Special Olympics athletes to join. Judge Mendoza’s best friend in the club, Dan Grieb, was assigned to be Nikic’s guide.
“As Chris started participating in the sport, he fell in love with it,” Judge Mendoza said. “And his dad noticed that he was losing weight, gaining confidence, all of the things you would expect with this type of activity.”
Soon, training wasn’t enough for Nikic.
“At the end of 2019, Chris and his father came to Dan and said, ‘Chris would like to train for an ironman,’” Judge Mendoza said. “So Dan came to me and said this is going to have to be a team effort. All of us had finished ironman races, we all knew how difficult it was.”
Judge Mendoza, Grieb, and several other club members were soon taking turns training Nikic — on top of their own training.
“So, on a typical Saturday, we would go out on our bikes and would ride, at our pace, about 50 miles,” Judge Mendoza said. “And then we would pack up our bikes and go to Chris’ house, and then we would train with him for whatever his training was. It was pretty much like that all summer.”
Their confidence in Nikic’s ability to accomplish the goal grew stronger this spring, after Nikic completed a half ironman in Clermont.
“We measured out all of the distances, and our team guided Chris through,” Judge Mendoza said. “He completed the distance in the time allotted, although that’s unsanctioned, so it was unofficial.”
But a half ironman wasn’t enough to erase all doubts.
“Now people will often say, well, if you’re running a half ironman, isn’t an ironman just twice as hard?” Judge Mendoza said. “A full ironman’s probably four to 10 times as hard, it’s just an entirely different animal.”
Nikic’s team had plenty of jitters on the day of the race, and their worries weren’t unfounded.
Nikic fell off his bike and bloodied his leg, but jumped back on and kept going. During a nutrition stop, Nikic inadvertently stood in a nest of fire ants. Team members brushed them off and Nikic insisted on continuing.
During the run, it was clear the strategy of running for six minutes and walking for 30 seconds had to be abandoned.
“It was a goal that seemed too far away for Chris, because he kept asking, ‘how much more time?’” Judge Mendoza said.
The team decided that a guide would urge Nikic on to the next signpost or orange cone, and allow him to rest until Judge Mendoza, who was running at a pace of 13.5 minutes per mile, would catch up.
But Judge Mendoza wasn’t confident until the last 6 miles, when he asked an official how much time was left on the 17-hour clock — and received a reassuring answer.
“That’s the first time I knew we would make it,” he said. “You have no idea how that felt.”
There was enough time left over for Nikic to hug his fans at the finish line, Judge Mendoza said.
“All he wanted was a chance, a fair opportunity,” Judge Mendoza said. “He’s not a Down syndrome ironman, he’s just an ironman like the rest of us.”