On November 7 in Panama City Beach, Florida, Chris Nikic made history as the first athlete with Down syndrome to complete a full-distance Ironman triathlon, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 marathon run. Next to him was his coach and guide, Dan Grieb. Grieb; the CEO and founder of the Home to Sell Team at Keller Williams, a 17-time Ironman athlete (with a remarkable story of his own), and a shining example of KW culture; recently sat down with Outfront senior editor Lalaina Rabary to reflect on the historic journey. He shares how working alongside Nikic has deepened his purpose, taught him important leadership lessons, and kick-started a mission to make inclusion a mainstay in the business world.
On top of running a significant business, you’ve been a consistent Ironman competitor. How did you get started? And, how did you and Chris connect?
Five years ago, I was 300+ pounds wanting to have a great business, family life, financial security, and relationship with God, but kept running into the belief that I couldn’t have it all. I thought I’d have to give up something to get something, but after working to get my health back, that changed. During my two-year weight loss journey, I actually made more money. To maintain my weight loss, I signed up to compete in Ironman races with the goal of doing 10 in two years. Once I accomplished that goal, I asked myself what’s the best way to thank God for the opportunity. For me, it was to help someone else do the same thing. When Chris walked into one of our clubs seeking support to complete an Olympic-distance Ironman last October, I realized that moment had come, and I could use what I learned to help him achieve his dream.
When you began, a full-distance Ironman wasn’t in the plan. How/When did that change?
In February, Chris and his dad went with me to do an open-water swim at Lucky’s Lake – a well-known lake in the area where if you swim across it and back (roughly 1,000 yards), you get to sign a house owned by a very wealthy doctor. We finished, and then I had to leave; so Chris and his dad went inside of the house and Chris signed: Chris, World Champion. When his dad read it, he thought about what Chris could be a world champion at and asked, “Would you want to do an Ironman?” Chris said sure, and then they came to me with the same question: where I said, “Yes, I think he could. Let’s give it a try.”
What a significant moment.
It was. Chris’s dad told me that I was the first person that has ever really believed in Chris, besides him that deeply. I can relate to the feeling of not being seen as someone with potential. I grew up poor, in a troubled home and found myself in a lot of fights at school. My whole life, I’ve been misunderstood and minimized as a person. In high school, my guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do. When I shared that I wanted to be a police officer, she replied, “You’ll be lucky not to be in jail.” I replied “You know, I’m going to do something great one day.” The day they pinned the badge on my chest, I remembered the conversation and realized that the words we say have power. So, when other people come up to me and ask if they can do something, my answer is always: “Of course! You can do it.”
‘Dedicated’ scratches the surface, but it’s the only word I can think of that sums up the amount of time both you and Chris poured into this. How much did you train?
6-7 days a week, 2-4 hours per day, and 8 hours over the weekend with one, sometimes two workouts.
How were you able to keep up with the demands of Ironman training while running your own business?
Over the last year, our people have rallied around us. When a leader is gone for a year, it can lend itself to selfish behavior, but the opposite happened on our team. I hired an administrative assistant to work just with me full time and a sales manager to run the real estate team full time. I realized that when you hire the right people and offer the right opportunities, they’ll make it sing for you when you’re not there and keep you moving in the right direction.
What leadership/coaching lessons did you learn while working with Chris?
How to motivate. Chris has a huge heart for people, so the idea of proving people wrong or being the best weren’t appealing to him. I also learned how strengths show up differently for all of us. Chris learns through repetition, taking slow, incremental steps forward versus huge gains or leaps. This is a superpower. Because, once Chris has mastered a task, he doesn’t lose it.
I also learned how to communicate in new ways. Chris’s cognitive delays (present in individuals with Down Syndrome in varying degrees) means he processes human interaction differently. If he’s upset, he’ll ask for a hug. If he’s happy, he’ll hug you. If he feels like you’ve hurt him, he’ll ask you to hug him. Chris taught me that you can solve a lot of problems by giving someone a hug.
How has your experience with Chris played into how you’re running your business?
First and foremost, we’ll always have an individual with Down syndrome who works on our team. We are actually starting our own internship program. Chris is our current intern, but now he’s a famous public speaker, so we won’t be able to afford to keep him much longer (laughs). I believe that you can have a great business centered around the mission of doing the right thing. And, if you do the right thing, hire the right people, and decide to step away, even if you’re the rainmaker, your people will rally around you.
It also reminded me about the power of real estate; our industry offers a unique opportunity to do great things because we’re not bound by corporate rules.
Take us to the night you and Chris crossed the finish line. What did that moment mean to you?
When it came down to the last two miles of the race, I realized we had 53 minutes to finish. I said to Chris, “We have enough time to walk in, but we’re not. We’re going to run it in number one, so you have the opportunity to hug all of your friends as we come in. And two, so that it can be harder for the next person with Down syndrome to make it in faster.”
When we crossed the finish line, the world changed. The night before, people may have looked at someone with Down syndrome thinking they are limited, but now the next time someone tries to minimize someone with Down syndrome for the rest of history, they’ll say, “Didn’t someone with Down syndrome complete an Ironman?” Anything is possible.
This was not about me. This was not my race. And, it’s not just about Chris, but everyone that follows behind him, everyone with an intellectual disability can now be told “you have a chance, if you want to.”
A core part of our KW mission (and culture) centers around “living a legacy worth leaving” as well as God, family, business. What a legacy you’ve left and what faith you’ve demonstrated.
I want to know that I left this world better than when I came in and all of the struggles and troubles I had, the things I overcame had a purpose behind them; they were seasons that God used to prepare me for a bigger opportunity. I just didn’t know what that opportunity would look like and God’s not done with me yet. There is still a long way to go.
How has Keller Williams been a key part of your journey?
Keller Williams has prepared me through Career Visioning, leadership classes, and being a part of Gary Keller’s top agent mastermind group for six years. I’ve learned that it’s not about the units you sell or the things you do, it’s about WHO you become in the process. People who succeed at a high level are people who stop making it about themselves and start empowering other people and activating their community; that’s the process of growth.
What’s next for you and Chris?
We’re going to write a book called “One Percent Better,” which talks about how we trained Chris and how anyone can use those same principles to get better at being a parent, family member, or member of their community. We learned that it’s not about big growth spurts, it’s about building solid foundations underneath. Chris actually kickstarted the concept already online.
We are also waiting for Ironman to give us the thumbs-up to compete in Ironman Kona, Hawaii, which is the world championship. They give about 10 slots a year to people like us. If we get one of those slots, we’re going to use it to advance the cause of inclusion, making sure people understand what intellectual disabilities are.
I’ll always be involved in advocacy. A year ago, I didn’t know anybody with Down syndrome. Personally, and now, it’s my responsibility to be an advocate with, and bridge between, able-bodied athletes and those in the community. With sponsors, for instance, I ask: “Show me how you’re going to give a person with Down syndrome the opportunity to work.” Chris works for us and he does a great job. People are capable of anything, disability or not.
It’s about being patient, and willing to teach.
Help Chris and Dan Create a More Inclusive World
Join Chris and Dan in their mission to create a more inclusive world by participating in the 1% Better Challenge. Created by Chris, the challenge helps you get 1% better in 30 days while helping generate more awareness about Down Syndrome.Get Started
Watch Chris and Dan’s Story Unfold
Watch Chris’ Ironman journey unfold in the first episode of NBC’s Anything Is Possible® – The Series, airing on NBC January 3, 2021. The episode follows Chris throughout the experience, starting with the training and preparation which led to him realizing his dream of completing the race with Dan by his side, and breaking barriers along the way.
About Down Syndrome
In every cell in the human body there is a nucleus, where genetic material is stored in genes. Genes carry the codes responsible for all of our inherited traits and are grouped along rod-like structures called chromosomes. Typically, the nucleus of each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, half of which are inherited from each parent. Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome. A few of the common physical traits of Down syndrome are low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm – although each person with Down syndrome is a unique individual and may possess these characteristics to different degrees, or not at all.
For additional information, visit the National Down Syndrome Society.