The impossible mile

Parents help son become the ‘athlete he wanted to be.’
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Johnny Agar loves sports. He loves watching baseball, hockey, football, basketball, and just about every other sport. He loved sports as a child when he thought of his physical therapies as workouts. He wore jerseys of his favorite Red Wings players — Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan —during therapy and watched them on TV every chance he got.

But playing sports in the usual sense was not part of the picture. Johnny, 27, was born with cerebral palsy. His body is twisted, and his arms and legs don’t work the same way most people’s do. When he gets excited, his arms move up and his fingers tighten. Yet this sports fan doesn’t sit in his wheelchair on the sideline. He participates in Iron Man events and running events regularly, his dad with him every step of the way and his family and friends cheering them on.

Jeff Agar, Johnny’s dad, pushes him as he runs, pulls him or rides back-to-back tandem in bike races, and pulls a kayak with Johnny in it when swimming. The pair have been all over the United States — as well as Germany for the Challenge Roth triathlon — running, swimming, and biking together, each event a test of endurance and a symbol of the love between them.

“It’s an incredible experience to do races alongside your son, especially when no one could have predicted he would participate in any competitive sport and I would never have thought of being involved in endurance sports at any level,” said Jeff, who pitched in the Detroit Tigers minor leagues as a young man.

“I began to realize as Johnny got older that he wasn’t all right with not being an athlete. Running together and then racing together became a way for him to feel like the athlete he wanted to be.”

New endeavor

Now Johnny, who lives with his parents and sister Gracy (sister Annie lives in Chicago) in Rockford, has taken another big step by writing a book with his mom, Becki Agar. “The Impossible Mile: The Power of Living Life One Step at a Time” released late last year and is a testament to a young man’s drive to succeed and his family’s love and unending encouragement.

The title comes from Johnny’s dream of walking a mile in the St. Patrick’s 5K walk/run, a yearly event to raise money for the parish church on Parnell Avenue in Ada. Up to that point, Johnny had walked only 23 steps with his walker at one time. He trained for a year, building the muscles and coordination needed to walk the final distance. Race day finally came, and Johnny did the first miles with his dad pushing him in his racing chair. Then came that last mile when he pushed forward using his walker. The final hill seemed insurmountable until he turned around.

Here is how he describes it in the book: “Teens, children, moms pushing babies in strollers, dads holding toddlers on shoulders, race participants, parishioners … I had an army at my back. There were even elderly folks with folding chairs who were walking ahead, sitting down, cheering me on, and then standing up and carrying their chairs forward again. And there ahead — I could see her now — was Mom.

“And then I reached the finish line.

“All the training I had done, and the support I had received, had pushed me to this point. More people were waiting for me at the finish, cheering me on. I stepped across the timing strip and let go of the walker — and Dad caught me before I fell.”

“The Impossible Mile” describes a number of such events, as well as Johnny’s childhood, introduces his family, and reveals Johnny’s dreams, struggles, and thoughts about life, racing, and living with a differently-abled body.

“Writing the book gave me a new appreciation for what Mom and Dad went through to get me to this point in my life,” he said. “Some of the stories I hadn’t heard until writing the book. My parents raised me as a typical child when I wasn’t a typical child.”

Johnny and Becki decided to write the book after Johnny’s 2019 graduation from Aquinas College with degrees in sports management and business administration. They had a well-established routine from years of homeschooling and college — Johnny dictated and Becki typed. The first version of the book was 120,000 words long, which they eventually pared down to its current length.

“Johnny didn’t like talking about how his body moved, but I told him people need to see his struggles,” Becki said. “We walked a fine line, wanting people to see Johnny’s struggles but also the importance of seeing how he overcame those struggles and challenges.”

The book took about a year to write, the pair eventually connecting with local literary agent Tom Dean, owner of A Drop of Ink. Dean got them connected with publisher Dexterity Books. Johnny’s friendships with sports figures helped him gather endorsements for the book, including words from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, professional multisport athlete Tim Tebow, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and ABC news correspondent Bob Woodruff. ESPN SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt wrote the foreword.

Inspiration and advice

“The Impossible Mile” is far more than Johnny’s life history up to now. The book is full of inspiration for those attempting what seems impossible — whether in sports or in life. It’s also full of advice for those facing struggles and even failure.

“I see failure as a steppingstone, not a roadblock, to where you want to go,” Johnny said. “I’ve experienced failure over and over again with simple tasks such as taking off a shirt or brushing my teeth. It takes me multiple times to learn how to do simple things.”

But anyone can overcome anything by taking it one step at a time.

“If you set a goal for yourself and break those challenges down into small pieces, you’ll eventually get where you want to go,” he said. “I can’t take big steps; I have to take small steps when I walk. That’s God’s lesson for me: I have to take things slower than other people who are used to living in a world where we can move fast.”

Jeff adds, “What racing with Johnny has shown me and many other people is that, with the right motivation, you can do things beyond what you ever thought possible. The fact that I can help Johnny fulfill his dream and we can live out his dream together has been such a blessing.”

Becki said that Johnny’s cerebral palsy, which she is quick to say is a blessing to their family, “has shown us what he has to go through, which makes us appreciate life. He has such a positive attitude and he’s so patient. He’s a reminder all the time that you can be happy with that you have.”

Sports continues to play a big role in Johnny’s life as a prime motivator. He talks of myTeam Triumph, an organization that pairs people with disabilities with able-bodied athletes who compete as a team. The person with the disability is the “captain” and the other athletes are the “angels.”

Johnny and his team competed in the Reeds Lake Triathlon and other events. Johnny and his dad, with help from sister Annie and other family members, have run in the Amway River Bank Run, the Ludington Lighthouse Triathlon and Mitchell’s Run Thru Rockford, which raises money for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. He’s been featured on ESPN’s E:60 show and in the Under Armour “Will Finds a Way” campaign.

“Sports is a big motivation and example,” Johnny said. “When I got the opportunity to participate in the myTeam Triumph events, that was my open door to participate in sports. Athletes train very hard; when I saw people around me pushing themselves, that pushed me to push myself.”

One of his biggest “pushes” was the 2016 Iron Man event in Kona, Hawaii. Swimming in the ocean was difficult for Johnny’s dad, who also had to pull Johnny in a kayak. They trained for the event, making it through the swim and halfway through the biking portion before being pulled because they wouldn’t make the necessary cutoff time.

“Johnny said, ‘Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.’ Here’s Johnny, again teaching us because he knows how learning is a process,” Becki said. “Johnny is always teaching us and gives us such a beautiful perspective on life.”

Johnny isn’t done yet. His long-term goals include finishing the Kona Iron Man by walking by himself that last mile. He’d also like to do a 5K by himself “to give Dad a break.”

He also dreams of living independently.

“As much as I love my parents and they love me, I want to be able to show them I can be self-sufficient and independent,” he said. “That’s what they ultimately want me to be, and I hope to reach that goal.”

His advice for those facing struggles of any kind is the same advice he gives himself: “Face your fears; it won’t be as bad as you thought” and “You’ll sell yourself short if you don’t do what you can do. So many people are afraid of trying new things.”

Becki, who has learned so much from her son, added this: “Johnny is not afraid of failure because he knows God has a plan. By having faith and determination and a little bit of humor, we can accomplish what we set out to do. It’s not easy and takes time, but if Johnny can do that impossible mile, anyone can.”

Here’s Johnny

  • Visit johnnyagar.com to inquire about Johnny speaking at your event, races he’ll participate in and other information.
  • “The Impossible Mile” is available at Baker Book House and Schuler Books, as well as via online booksellers.
  • Visit YouTube and search “Johnny Agar” to see videos of Johnny’s races and interviews.

Excerpts from “The Impossible Mile”

“By myself, I am just whistling a tune, but with my parents, I add a brass section, giving me the confidence and power I need. My sisters become my percussion — keeping me in rhythm and adding excitement to my life; my friends become my woodwinds section — often taking on a supporting role and providing the harmony; and my community becomes the strings section — the most numerous of the groups who help carry the melody.

“When we all work together, we form a hardworking and harmonious orchestra — ready to play the beautiful symphony that is my life with the Great Conductor as the lead.”

“(Michael) Phelps inspired me, not just because of his talent and all his gold medals, but because he had also risen, fallen, and risen again. The athletes whom my parents had encouraged me to emulate were not the ones who were always on top. They were the ones who had experienced failure and yet were able to rise again, who had made their way back up to the top victorious — not defeated.”

“In looking back, I know I will never get to stand out on the mound to throw a perfect game or catch a Hail Mary pass in the end zone. I would never be as great an athlete as the ones I looked up to all my life. But, I at least felt good knowing my struggles and challenges gave hope to others, and that no matter how rocky their road, they realized they were all capable of walking their own impossible mile.”

This story can be found in the January/February 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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