“My meditation changes as I get closer to race day”, Chris Nikic, Nik Nikic & Dan Grieb and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Nik: I’m a big believer in results come from the seeds you put in your mind. I was very protective of Chris and what I allowed people around him to say and how to say it. Most people don’t understand that they sabotage their own success with negative talk. I refused to let anyone plant […]

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Nik: I’m a big believer in results come from the seeds you put in your mind. I was very protective of Chris and what I allowed people around him to say and how to say it. Most people don’t understand that they sabotage their own success with negative talk. I refused to let anyone plant any seeds of doubt in Chris’ mind. I helped Chris stay focused on success by repeating positive, success-oriented affirmations.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Nikic, Nik Nikic & Dan Grieb.

Chris Nikic set a Guinness World Record by becoming the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full IRONMAN in November 2020. As a Special Olympics Florida athlete, Chris has competed in golf, track and field, swimming, basketball and triathlons. Chris is a recent high school graduate and motivational speaker who attributes his successes in sports and life to his 1% Better philosophy — focus on getting 1% better each day and you can achieve you dreams! As a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador, Chris strives to raise awareness and promote inclusion for the Special Olympics community and others with intellectual disabilities.

Nik Nikic brings over 20 years of experience in helping clients maximize top line revenue by enabling “Digital Sales Transformations” through a turnkey solution which includes end-to-end sales process design, CRM tools and adoption training programs. Nik and his organization have worked with many global companies like United Technologies, Cognizant, United Airlines, Enterprise, Quad Graphics, Computer Sciences Corporation, Symantec, Toshiba, Deloitte, RICOH, and many others. As a father, Nik is incredibly involved in Special Olympics with his son Chris’ training in golf, basketball and triathlons.

Dan Grieb has used the motto, “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it” to help build one of the best real estate businesses in the United States, ranking in the top 1% of all realtors. Dan is blessed with two amazing sons and a loving, supportive wife who helped co-found their passion project: the One More Kid Charity, which provides school supplies and holiday items to needy children and families. As a passionate triathlete, Dan has traveled the world completing 10 half IRONMAN, six full IRONMAN races, the Disney Marathon, Dopey Challenge, and the OUC Half Marathon. He also finished multiple ocean marathons. Dan is an IRONMAN certified coach, Certified Performance Coach and Master Practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming. Dan’s coaching style is considered intense but with a focus on developing relationships. One of Dan’s personal highlights was coaching Chris Nikic, the first person with Down syndrome to complete an IRONMAN triathlon in under 17 hours. This journey changed his life forever and taught him life lessons which he will carry with him and apply to his future coaching, professional and personal relationships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Chris: Being born with Down syndrome means many early challenges starting with open heart surgery at five months, using a walker until the age of four, being unable to eat anything but baby food until five and then going to seven different schools from K-6. Basically, I was excluded from everything because of my physical and intellectual disabilities. I was a sickly boy who loved to play sports, but I was sick most of the time with ear infections, colds and I would catch everything anyone had. By 17, my ear problems led to four major reconstructive ear surgeries where I became even less active, gained about 40 pounds and became very isolated. Then at age 18, my dad decided to get me involved in a Special Olympics pilot triathlon program to get in shape and make some friends and that’s where my transformation started so I am so thankful to Special Olympics.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

Chris: First of all, I am not a high-level professional athlete, just a boy with Down syndrome who did an IRONMAN and set a world record. My sister played basketball in high school and college, so I always wanted to play like my sister, but health issues made it hard. I also liked to play golf.

I am not a professional athlete, just a Special Olympics athlete who last year decided to do what most people thought was impossible, be the first person with Down syndrome to do an IRONMAN. I wanted to be a world champ at something so on New Year’s Eve, my dad asked me to write down my dreams. I wrote down that I wanted to buy my own car, buy my own house, and marry a wonderful woman like my mom. My dad said, if you sit on the couch all day, you will never get your dreams, but if you do an IRONMAN and become a motivational speaker you have a chance to get your dreams. So, my dad got me to focus on my dream and that has helped me to achieve my goal of doing an IRONMAN.

Dan: I had my own weight loss journey in which I lost 100 pounds. I chose to use the IRONMAN events as the catalyst to do it. I completed 10 IRONMAN events in two years and when I completed them, I was set to “retire.” However, before I retired, I wanted to show my gratitude to God and I knew the best way to do that was to help someone else become an IRONMAN. I wanted to use my body to help someone else achieve this milestone. As an IRONMAN, I know that becoming an actual IRONMAN is not derived by the fact that you crossed the finish line, rather by who you become in the process. It is the extra training in the heat and the cold, the pushing of yourself, the lack of sleep, the diet, and others telling you a 140.6 mile race is crazy. I thought that person I helped would be a blind person and I began my search. However, God answered my prayer by connecting me to Chris Nikic who did not need my body to help him as much as he needed my mind, heart and my willingness to include him in what others thought was impossible.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Chris: My dad was there from the beginning by training with me and encouraging me. We started to do a triathlon together, but he got hurt and Special Olympics got me a guide, Simone Goodfriend. My dad continued to encourage and help me, but Simone was able to train with me and she made it fun. Then, after one year, when I got too fast for Simone, Dan Grieb decided to help me, and he has been my guide all the way to IRONMAN. My dad was always there for everything I did, but God brought two special angels into my life, Simone and Dan, to help me in my journey to IRONMAN. I needed all three of them to help me succeed.

Nik: Chris and I saw a story about a young lady with Down syndrome, Chelsea Warner, who was a two-time gold medal-winning Special Olympics athlete, and we saw one of her videos. She was amazing and I thought, “Why can’t Chris do something amazing that would make him a world champion?” She planted a seed for us to consider.

Dan: Most of the help I received during this journey came from Chris’s dad, Nik. He helped me understand the daily struggles he and Chris face with Down syndrome. Nik was vulnerable and willing to share personal stories about how he and his family just want Chris to have a chance. Nik was ok with failure and if Chris struggled, he gave me permission to fail with Chris and most importantly, he freed me from the same mistake some coaches suffer from, which is the desire to protect our athletes. I had a ton of help along the way and I will highlight my coach, Hector Torres. Hector spent more time with me than anyone else on our team over the last four years. He taught me the physical side of triathlons. Hector always encouraged and challenged me to be the best and most well-rounded athlete I could be. I am a mentally tough athlete and if I attempted to train Chris with that philosophy, I would have either injured him or burnt him out. It was Hector who taught me the proper form and technique to accompany shear will power.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Chris: The most interesting moment of my triathlon career was a year ago at the Special Olympics championships, I thought I worked hard, but I still finished last among other Special Olympics athletes. Even though I thought I worked hard, I did not improve enough to get a medal. I did not like finishing last and not getting a medal. So, I learned that I needed to work even harder and even longer. While all the other athletes took time off and were happy with their results, I kept working and a year later, I became an IRONMAN. Sometimes finishing last is the best thing that can happen to you.

Dan: In my journey with Chris, the funniest story was when I first met Chris, I had a strong desire for him to “like me.” The Nikic family has their own language. During my first training sessions with Chris, he kept telling me to “get out of here.” I was like, “Man this guy hates me!” Nik later told me that “get out of here” is a phrase of endearment which meant Chris does in fact like me!

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Chris: I did not do anything spectacular. I just got 1% better every day for two years and I went from the couch to IRONMAN. Anyone who wants to accomplish something great, you just have to be willing to be consistent for a couple of years and you can do amazing things. The easiest thing to do is quit. The hardest thing to do is just keep improving every day. I used my dream to keep me going. If you want to do something big, then start by writing down a BIG dream and look at it every day. Never take your eye off your dream.

Nik: HABITS. All I did was help Chris create a habit of small incremental daily and weekly gains. At first there was very little progress and activity, but over time, as it became a habit, the activity and improvements increased. It is also important to identify what they want and use it as motivation to help create the habits and to focus on the small gains. With Chris, we used his dream to motivate him to focus on daily improvements. The 1% better concept is something I use in my business to develop salespeople. I modified it to make it easier for Chris to follow and execute but I am a big believer in small incremental gains over time, compounded, leading to massive results.

Dan: I think it takes a willingness to learn a new language, not take the traditional approaches, be ok with knowing you may not know everything and lead with your heart. People with intellectual disabilities (ID) have their own personalities just like anyone else. You cannot take a traditional approach because they may need a little extra help in one area. This does not mean they need help in every area. Lastly, when you work with an athlete who has ID, it makes a lot of sense to bring their parents or caregivers into the coaching team. They may not know the sport, but no one will know the athlete better.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Chris: Next year, I will continue to learn new skills and get stronger so I can finish IRONMAN Hawaii. At the same time, I will also study extremely hard to build my mind and speaking ability.

I will also dedicate myself to getting 1% better at playing golf. The reason I will do all this is to show others like me around the world that we can do the impossible one year and then next year we can do something even more amazing. This will help others like me believe they can do it too. The best thing I can do for others like me is be an example by showing them that we can do anything if we are willing to work hard and get 1% better each day. The reason I want to focus on golf and speaking, in addition to IRONMAN, is to show we can do more than one thing. It’s not about IRONMAN, but about doing whatever we want to do. I recently became a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador so I can help others like me all over the world.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Chris: I only have one strategy. When you have Down syndrome, you must keep things simple. Focus on one thing at a time. My dad taught me to always stay focused on my dream. Any time things get hard and my mind and body are telling me to stop or to quit, my dad taught me that there is always a battle going on in my mind. The battle is between my fake pain and my dreams. Fake pain is the pain you feel when you are training. The way you know it is fake pain, is that it stops when you stop. We developed a strategy that when things get really hard and the pain is really high, we stop for 30-seconds, we focus on my dream and we let the fake pain go away and we start again. Every time things get tough; my dad asks me the same question. He says, “Chris what’s going to win, your fake pain or your dreams?” I always answer the same way. “My DREAMS.“ He taught me to focus on my dreams.

Nik: The strategy I used was to keep Chris focused on his dream. I had him write his dreams on his calendar on his bedroom wall and I would have him read them aloud every day so they burned into his brain. From there, I had him focus on small incremental gains, but I showed him how those gains would get him to his dreams.

Dan: The biggest thing I learned is to keep it fun. I learned Chris is incredibly competitive, however, that spirit is not born in ego like it is for others. Our athletes like the victory and they will fight for it. However, they don’t need to win at the expense of others, and they do not need to win at the expense of the enjoyment of the game.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Chris: No, I just focus my mind on my dreams, and I let my dreams drive out my pain from my mind. My mind only has room for one thing, either fake pain or dreams. Sometimes the fake pain takes over, so I stop, and I let my dreams replace my fake pain.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Chris: Yes, I have a complete mental focus on my dreams. I never let anything else take over my mind.

Nik: I developed this concept of ‘FAKE PAIN’ to help Chris learn how to deal with the inevitable pain that is associated with exercise and then I would help him replace it with his dreams. We eliminated all distractions by simply being laser focused on his dreams. We used his dreams to help him focus and overcome all obstacles.

Dan: I think the biggest factor is the size of the dream. People with ID have dreams and I think it is important to keep those dreams as a focus. Life will happen, things will go wrong in training, but the dream will always provide the athlete with a north star. In most cases, the dream is not the race. It’s independence or the ability to be included in society. These dreams are easy to overlook because most people in society take these types of dreams for granted. Many of us cannot imagine that the mere inclusion in a race is a bigger part of the dream than winning the race.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Chris: I build my body a little at a time. The key for IRONMAN is endurance. Over a year, I built my body until it was strong enough to do an entire IRONMAN. I do lots of strength training to make my core strong enough to handle all the other events. I built my core 1% at a time. A year ago, I started by doing 1 push up, 1 sit up and 1 squat. Then every few days, I did a little more. Eventually, before IRONMAN, I was doing 200 of each plus weights, pull ups and other strength exercises. The key for me was I made slow and steady progress. By next year’s IRONMAN Hawaii, I will be able to do 500 push-ups, sit ups and squats using the same strategy, which is to just get 1% better every day. I will be so strong physically and mentally that there is no way I would quit.

Nik: For Chris, the strategy was slow and steady progress. It was not about overstressing his body but building it gradually.

Dan: One of the biggest lessons I have learned is you don’t have to kill yourself in training to get prepared for a race. You simply must get 1% better each day. I have always trained with the mindset, “if you train hard you can race easy.” That strategy has worked for me and it also brought about a lot of injuries. If we commit to getting just 1% better each day, we improve over time. With a solid base, we face less injuries and we have more fun!

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

Chris: What I described previously is designed to become a habit. Instead of developing habits of exercise, I developed a different kind of habit. My habit is to get 1% better every day. So, every day, I wake up and I ask, “How will I be 1% better today than I was yesterday?” Most people think about developing many different habits of activity or working out, but not me. That is too hard. I develop the habit of continuous improvement. I now have a 1% better habit. It is automatic. I don’t think about it. I just wake up and I get 1% better every day. People wonder how I just keep going. It’s easy because it is just a habit. Something I don’t even think about. I just do it. For example, one day I increase my core by 1%, another day my swim, and another day my bike riding. Every day I can increase something by 1% and over time, I achieved IRONMAN. In December 2019, I did a 14-mile sprint triathlon. To do a 140-mile IRONMAN, I only needed to get 1% better every day for seven months and I had 10 months to complete it. It’s actually not that hard. We had three extra months for my coaches to build in rest and recovery as part of my plan.

Nik: I built my business on helping large companies transform their sales organizations and the biggest enemy to improving performance is old habits and the secret to success is building new success habits. As parents, Patty and I focused on helping Chris develop good habits, which builds a good work ethic which then creates a successful person. Our entire focus was on helping Chris build one success habit, and that is to get 1% better each day. We wanted him to get hooked on success and he did. We did not focus on the behavior, but on the successful outcome of that behavior.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Chris: Developing many habits is hard, but developing one habit is much easier. Habits get stronger over time. By trying to develop too many habits, you don’t really develop strong habits. That’s why people quit. Their habits are not strong enough. By developing only one habit, get 1% better every day, you end up building one powerful habit. Most people didn’t understand what was happening, but my dad designed the program for me to focus on just one habit. He told me not to worry about anything except getting 1% better every day. For example, when I do my core strength of push-ups, sit ups and squats, I do four sets of everything. If I did four sets of 40 on Monday, then I know if my dad says on Wednesday, “Chris, do your 1% core today,” I know I just need to do four sets of 41. It’s really easy because I know I did four sets of 40 Mondays so with one or two days rest, doing four sets of 41 is really easy because I am only doing one more. That is my habit. If I did 10 sets of 10 on my bike last Saturday, then next Saturday, I just need to do 10 sets of 11. Just one more. It’s easy because it’s just one more. That is the habit. Just one more and over time that becomes 1% better.

As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

Chris: Individuals with Down syndrome like routine and repetition so we achieve flow through repetition and counting. I achieve flow by counting. I get in a rhythm as I count everything. Like the examples I shared, I count sets and reps of everything. I can focus when I know the start and end. I know that every 10 laps I stop, so in between, I get in a flow and the closer to the end I get, the stronger and more excited I get. The hardest part for me is always the beginning and the easiest is the end. If I can get past the middle point of anything, I know I can get to the end. In the IRONMAN race, the hardest part for me was mile 10–13 on the run. I was ready to quit, but as soon as we got past mile 13 and we knew we were closer to the end than the beginning, it became easier for me physically and mentally. My training style also gives me the strength to finish strong.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

Dan: My meditation changes as I get closer to race day. I use the power of words to help me center myself. I think we have a recording that plays in our head and those messages are placed there when we are children by parents, other children, circumstances, or events. As a result, those messages keep playing day after day. Often, those messages are negative, do not serve us and only reinforce the negativity. Therefore, I listen daily to messages of accomplishment, hope and achievement for 30 minutes. As I get closer to race day, I visualize the race, how tough it is and I change the destructive messages I hear every day to messages that the goals are worth it, everything comes at a cost, everyone can run downhill but few people run up. I focus on messages of winning and meditate those messages. After races, I spend the next few weeks focusing on gratitude and listening to messages of gratitude daily.

Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

Chris: I don’t change my thoughts. My dad has taught me to only say positive things. We only focus on our dreams. My dad makes sure that nobody around me says anything negative. He taught me whenever anyone says anything negative to fight back by telling them to keep their opinions to themselves or to tell them to watch me. I will never say negative things and we won’t let anyone around us say it. When we have people around us say negative things, we tell them to either leave it at the gate or just leave. My dad taught me to do everything with a smile. Nobody likes a grouchy winner. Either do it with a smile or don’t do it at all. Nobody likes a bad or negative attitude. I do everything with a smile.

Nik: I’m a big believer in results come from the seeds you put in your mind. I was very protective of Chris and what I allowed people around him to say and how to say it. Most people don’t understand that they sabotage their own success with negative talk. I refused to let anyone plant any seeds of doubt in Chris’ mind. I helped Chris stay focused on success by repeating positive, success-oriented affirmations.

Dan: I literally memorize speeches, poems and bible verses so when the negative messages try to enter, they have to go through the filter of “Our Greatest Fear” by Marianne Williamson, the “Man In The Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt, “If You Think You Are Beaten” by Walter Wintle, as well as many bible verses. I think changing the channel happens when you change how you “feel,” not when you change how you “think.” Get outside and move around. Don’t just sit there and wait for the moment to pass because that “moment” can take hours or days. Change how you feel by singing a song that makes you smile or by moving your body!

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Chris: It’s interesting because until recently, I was just another boy with Down syndrome. After crossing that finish line on time, I became successful. I want to be an example to others by showing we can have big dreams and big goals if we are willing to do the work and get 1% better every day. People have been telling us our whole life what we can’t do. The best thing I can do is show my friends with Down syndrome that we need to stop listening to the experts because they are wrong. I want to prove them wrong, and my hope is through my example, they will pursue their goals and dreams. All I can do is inspire others to be the best person they can be. I did this because I saw others with Down syndrome do great things like my friend Anna Marie Nieves who went to the Special Olympics World Games, or my friend Abigail Adams who influenced the world cheerleading organization or Chelsea Warner, a two-time Special Olympics gold medalist in gymnastics. They made me believe I could do something great. Now, I want to do the same for others. I am also practicing being a motivational speaker and use my story and speaking ability to share a message of awareness and inclusion and hopefully help make the world a little better by being a good example of what is possible. I am proud to be a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador so I can help others like me all over the world.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Chris: “My DREAMS are bigger than my Fake Pain.” Every day in life, we will be faced with fear and fake pain that will try and stop us from our dreams. This quote always reminds me that I need to focus on my dreams.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊

Chris: Luka Doncic. Because we are the same age, I love basketball, and he has a sick step back three-point shot like the one he nailed against the Clippers. I want to play a game of 1-on-1 with him and then go on a double date with our girlfriends.

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