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Johnny Agar’s favorite part of race day is the moment when a volunteer takes a marker and writes numbers on his arms and calves. For most triathletes, body marking is a necessary hassle of race morning, but for Agar it’s a badge of honor.
“I get emotional, because I’m just like everyone else, wearing the markings that only triathletes wear,” Agar said. “I am one of them. That is the only thing I have ever wanted to be.”
Agar, 26, who was born with cerebral palsy, admits he’s about as far from the stereotypical image of a triathlete as one can get. While symptoms of cerebral palsy vary from person to person and cover a range of motor and muscular disorders, for Agar his limited mobility and use of a wheelchair mean that he races as a team with his father, Jeff, who pushes or pulls him for much of the event. In a lot of ways, though, Johnny’s still your standard triathlete: He wakes up early to train, he celebrates post-race with pizza, and he got into the sport because of a friend—but quickly fell in love and recruited the rest of his family.
A neighbor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Chad Spaman, got Johnny hooked on triathlon and raced with him at first; Spaman was a part of an organization called myTeamTriumph (mTT). The group pairs people with disabilities alongside fellow athletes to participate in running and triathlon races using equipment such as harnesses, bike trailers, and joggers.
But after that first event, Johnny and Jeff began doing marathons and triathlons as a family team. His sister, Annie, would often join them as well. Training and racing provided a way for the family to bond over a shared love of sports, spurred in part by Jeff’s former career as a minor-league relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.
“I had always wanted to be an athlete like my dad,” Johnny said. “Being on a team with my dad and sister in a sport that we could all participate in was like a dream come true for me.”
The more the Agars achieved together, the more confidence Johnny gained to pursue other independent goals. His major goal was to walk the final mile of his race—a distance much greater than the 23 steps that constituted his longest walk at the time. It took consistent training with his family and a physical therapy program to gradually build up to that mile, but Johnny eventually covered it in a 2012 race made famous on an episode of ESPN’s E:60 and in Under Armour’s “Will Finds a Way” campaign. Today, he walks the final mile of every race he does with his father, be it local 5K races or full Ironman events. His ultimate goal is to one day cross the finish line of the Ironman World Championship. It hasn’t yet happened—a 2016 attempt in Kona ended with the Agars failing to make the bike cutoff—but the dream of walking the final mile of the race keeps them both going.
“The final mile represents what my whole life with cerebral palsy has been about: hard work, dedication, optimism, and determination,” he said. “The message that my parents taught me when I was young, and that I still apply today, is that it’s much easier to take on life one step at a time than it is to think about the huge task ahead of you. Small steps lead to bigger steps.”
Johnny applies this philosophy off the race course as well. Over the years, he’s learned to sit independently, eat and drink on his own, earn two university degrees from nearby Aquinas College, develop an accessibility app called Johnny’s Pass, and co-write a book with his mother, Becki. The book, The Impossible Mile, chronicles the Agar family’s philosophy of small steps toward big goals.
“At first, I didn’t realize how my impossible mile would affect others,” Johnny said. “As I look back on it now, I can see why a lot of people considered my walk impossible. When I set my goal to walk that distance, I had only ever walked 23 steps. I was just doing what I loved, trying to be an athlete. At my pace, it takes me 4,823 steps to walk a mile. So me having that big of a goal would be like someone else walking to the mailbox for the first time ever and deciding they were going to run a marathon. It was a pretty big goal to set, but the difference was I didn’t let the fear of failure scare me. The same thing applies to triathlon. It’s very hard for someone to see how three activities all in one race, or something like 140.6 miles in a day, could even be possible—but it is.”