Triathlete with Cerebral Palsy Writes about “Impossible Mile”
A triathlete isn’t what the doctors would have predicted when Johnny Agar was born 11 weeks premature with cerebral palsy, a condition that hinders a person’s ability to control muscle movement.
His parents, Jeff and Becki, were told that he likely wouldn’t walk or speak during his lifetime. However, they decided almost immediately they wouldn’t place limits on their son.
“We didn’t want him to actually grow up knowing that he had cerebral palsy because we feared that he would limit himself or that others would limit him or we would limit him, and so we just raised him, you know, as our son and loved him day by day,” said Becki.
At 27, Johnny has defied expectations. In addition to competing in triathlons and marathons with his dad, he’s a motivational speaker and the author of The Impossible Mile: The Power in Living Life One Step at a Time. Since its release in September, the book has become an Amazon bestseller.
Gift of failure
Johnny first began participating in races through myTeam Triumph (mTT) 5Ks, marathons and triathlons, being pushed by able-bodied athletes. That led to Johnny and his father competing in races as a team. Jeff pulls or pushes his son until the last mile and, from there, Johnny walks on his own using a walker.
When he walked his first impossible mile 11 years ago, he didn’t realize the impact it would have on others. He heard from people around the world and began to receive offers to speak to groups. Johnny’s first walk took him 1 hour and 45 minutes. With years of training, he has cut an hour off that original time.
“They were encouraged that, if I could walk, they could conquer what had been holding them back for so long,” Johnny shared recently as he and his mother were heading near Houston for IRONMAN Texas.
After Johnny graduated from Aquinas College in 2019, he and Becki decided it would be a good time to work on the book to encourage others to tackle their own “impossible mile.” When COVID-19 hit, the Agars thought it was even more important to get that message out to help give people encouragement and hope at a time when they believed it was needed most.
“I’m fortunate my cerebral palsy really gave me the gift of failure. Since I wasn’t able to do anything on the first try, I was used to failing all the time. For me, it wasn’t something to be afraid of. It was just part of the process. I hope people can see through my challenges that failure is OK and that it can actually make you stronger by getting rid of the doubt and fear. It makes it much easier to tackle what you want,” said Johnny, who lives in Rockford, about 15 miles north of Grand Rapids.
Inspiration from athletes
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt wrote the foreword in the book, which has been endorsed by professional athletes Michael Phelps, Tim Tebow and Kirk Cousins.
Johnny says he finds inspiration from Olympic swimmer Phelps and other athletes because of how hard they work to achieve their goals.
“I am someone who can barely walk, and it shows people what you can do if you put in the hard work. I have to think about every move I make when I walk. If I stop paying attention, I can easily stumble and fall. Michael has to do the same when swimming because winning a gold medal often comes down to a fraction of a second. If his concentration isn’t there, he wouldn’t get the gold,” Johnny said.
To help encourage others, Johnny and Becki have also designed a sock that has Johnny’s leg braces knitted onto them. Part of the proceeds goes to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports program, for which Johnny interned during college.
“I can’t walk without my braces on or I collapse because they give me the support and stability I need to take each new step,” said Johnny. “We hope these socks will help to do that for others by emboldening them to take steps toward their own challenges.”
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Photos courtesy of Johnny Agar