Johnny Agar & Becki Agar: ‘Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn’ (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell15 Minutes

John Farrell: If you were to have a personal motto, would it be “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”?

Johnny Agar: I think it’s a good representation of what I would want to tell people. I always like to refer to my favorite Bible verse though and that’s, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). If I had to tell people how to symbolize my life in sentences, those two would be on the top.

JF: When was the Ironman competition where you had said “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”?

Johnny: That was October 2016 at the Ironman World Championship.

Becki Agar: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Ironman World Championship at all, but it’s like the Super Bowl of triathlons or the World Series of triathlons. It’s like the mecca.

You have to qualify, but the physically or otherwise health-impaired teams get put in a lottery or they get invited. When Johnny and Jeff were invited, they had only ever done a half Ironman.

To put things into perspective, Jeff doesn’t swim in the ocean. He’s never liked to. So, when we got a call saying, “Hey, we think you guys should put your name in for the Ironman World Championship,” I answered the phone. Jeff was at work at the time and Johnny was sitting next to me. I kinda laughed and said, “Oh, that’s really a really nice thought, but Jeff doesn’t swim really in the ocean.” Johnny’s eyes are huge and he wants to do it automatically. When Jeff got home, I said, “We got an interesting call. They want to know if you’d like to do this Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.”

Johnny: I kinda smiled and gave him puppy eyes.

Becki: And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it, John. Why not?” I said “Jeff, you don’t swim in the ocean.” We talked about it later and Jeff said to me, “How can we be teachers, his whole life teaching him to try and do things that we knew he probably would either have an extremely difficult time doing, or wouldn’t ever be able to do, and then not do this? That would be kind of hypocritical of us.” He was so right. I’m just glad I wasn’t the one that was having to do the swimming and the racing.

But he accepted the challenge, and he did it for Johnny. That’s the beautiful thing. Jeff is an athlete, but he never would be doing this if it weren’t for Johnny. These are solely for him.

Johnny: He doesn’t do it because he wants to be an athlete again, but he does it because he gets to see the joy on my face. I think that’s why the article about everyone having a fatherhood story really spoke to me in that your father is your representation of what God is. I think dad really puts that in the forefront for me in that he doesn’t do it for himself. He is incredibly selfless and I find it very difficult to accurately describe how much that means to me. I think the book pays homage to my parents.

One of the main goals for me writing it is that I really wanted to explain to people what my parents do for me because I do a lot of motivational speaking and I can only put so much into a speech. This is my how and why, and showing people that if you give your child a chance, look at what they can do. It’s really special to me in that way and I’m really thankful that I could write this with mom because mom was also an integral part in my life.

It’s really important for us because I think when you have the child’s perspective on cerebral palsy and my life and then my mom’s perspective, we cover both aspects of things. That’s what we really tried to do in the book … cover things from what my mom was thinking and kind of match that to what I was thinking. We really wanted to inspire parents and young kids, and give them the foundation that they can achieve whatever they want to. Their challenges don’t necessarily have to define their stories.

Why Triathlons?

JF: What made you want to run in triathlons? Was it merely that connection with your father, this being the best way to have that awesome father-son bonding? Or was there something more?

Becki: If you were to ask Jeff, Jeff does not like running. He doesn’t even really like being called an Ironman. If you watch any of the footage, every time they finish a race Jeff will step aside. He doesn’t need the medal. He wants Johnny to get the attention. He doesn’t like it, but Jeff will always say you have to have a reason for putting yourself to extremes like he does. And his reason is Johnny … the love that he has for Johnny. That is the sole reason. He doesn’t like to race without Johnny. He doesn’t like to run without Johnny, and that’s kind of how the whole thing started.

When our daughter started running, then Jeff started biking with Annie because she was running longer distances and he didn’t want her out there late at night by herself. He said, “This is kind of silly. I’m riding a bike. I could be running alongside her and getting a little bit more exercise.” So that’s when he started running, but then she got faster, and she would go ahead of him and he didn’t like it. He was bored. He thought, “Johnny, would you want to run with me?” And Johnny sure, “Sure, I’ll run.” So, we got this old beat-up jogger and that’s how the running part of it all started.

Johnny: I couldn’t really play wheelchair sports because I don’t have control of my right hand as much so wheelchair sports were nearly impossible for me unless they wanted me to go in circles. But triathlon was really the first sport that I could participate in and learn how to mentally and physically do things. So, endurance sports is a really good thing for me, but I really appreciate that I can see dad save the day and really understand its what it means to be coming here like an endurance athlete. I think that’s a key thing for me to see him behind the scenes because I know that he wasn’t around there and now he is.

Becki: If you’ve never been to a triathlon and you love sports, you should go to a triathlon because these people get up like at three in the morning and they’re there and they’re setting up their gear and they are the happiest, most optimistic people you’ll ever meet in your life. They don’t know what the day is going to bring them, they’re up for the challenge, they’re tough, but they’re like one big family the way they help each other out and their kindness.

The epitome of it was when we were in Hawaii, and again, we had only done a half Ironman and we were really green to the whole process of everything. Its like the saying, “naïve enough to not know what you can’t accomplish.”

I think when we were in the zip tram—they make beautiful wheels and bike parts. Anyway, we got invited there and where we were standing this beautiful triathlon bike that’s thousands and thousands of dollars was on display. It was a world-renowned triathlete’s bike on display. We’re looking at it and the guys are asking us, “Do you have this kind of tire? This is the kind of tire that you should have on your bike.” Jeff says, “No, we don’t have that.” And the triathlete, Jordan Rapp, got his bike down off the display and said, “Decklin, give the tires to Johnny and Jeff so that they can have them for the race.”

That’s the type of people that triathletes are. Everybody’s a family. They want everybody to succeed. They want you to go out there and try and do your best. We knew from that experience, that first triathlon that Johnny did, that he fell in love with it. Of course, it was his first triathlon and they were super-fast people, so he was behind the pace car the whole time, which he loved going that fast. It was an opportunity for us to be able to have Johnny participate in an environment that was conducive to Johnny’s life.

JF: You mentioned it was a team triathlon. How do team triathlons work? Does one person do the swimming part and then the other do the cycling part? What is each team member’s role?

Becki: The organization is called “My Team Triumph.” How it works is the person that has the disability is called the “captain.” He’s the captain of the team. Then the other team members are called “angels.” You can have however many team members you want on your team. Typically, the pattern is they share the whole race. If it’s a triathlon, the captain, or the person with the disability, will get in the boat or the kayak and then one person will put a harness around them and swim pulling the kayak with the person with the disability in it, but the other teammates all swim alongside.

The mentality is you’re going to start together, you’re going to compete together, and you’re going to finish together. Everybody’s working together, but when they cross the finish line, the medal goes first to the captain, the person with the disability.

They try to put people who run a five-minute mile with other people who run a five-minute mile, but even if not, they all stick together and they stay together. They run together, they bike together, they swim together, and it’s just a really neat experience.

The first triathlon that we went to, Jeff and Annie both looked at each other saying, “This was such a phenomenal experience.” Like we said, we love the people. That’s when they said, “Let’s try this.” So, Jeff and Annie became their own team to push Johnny. Typically, Annie would push on the run and Jeff would do the bike and the swim, and that’s kind of how it started. Then Annie went to college and it was Jeff. So, Jeff and Johnny became teammates and kind of went from there.

Order a copy of The Impossible Mile: The Power in Living Life One Step at a Time by Johnny Agar with Becki Agar