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He wanted to become an Ironman. Inspired by Michael Phelps and helped by his father, he reached his goal in Maryland.

Mission accomplished for Johnny and Jeff Agar.

After five attempts to complete an Ironman competition in as many years, the father-son duo from Rockford, Michigan, finished the 140.6-mile course of Ironman Maryland in Cambridge just before midnight Sept. 17.

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Johnny Agar, 28, has cerebral palsy. After his father Jeff, a 59-year-old former relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, swam while pulling a kayak, biked while pulling a wheelchair carriage, and ran while pushing a running chair, Johnny walked the final several hundred feet through a chute to complete the Ironman just four minutes before the midnight cut-off time.

“Walking for me is very difficult,” Johnny Agar said. “I need to think about every single movement that I make when I walk. So to be able to do that with Dad and knowing that he’s done so much for me, it was just fantastic because he had trained so hard just to get me to that line. So to be able to finish and really throw away my disability was really something that I’ll never forget.”

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Jeff Agar said his biggest concern was ensuring that his son would be able to cross the finish line under his own power and within the allotted time.

“He sat for so long and was a huge supporter for everybody else doing the race,” he said. “The thing that I always feel worst about is when we don’t make it because then he doesn’t get his opportunity to do his part. So that was my main goal and what I was thinking of. Don’t step in a hole, don’t twist your ankle, get him to the point where his walker was sitting so that he could do what he needs to do.”

Ironman Maryland competitor Johnny Agar smiles as he's strapped to a bicycle. Johnny, 28, has cerebral palsy and was carried through the competition by his father, Jeff.

Before Sept. 17, the Agar duo had fallen short at previous Ironman attempts. They failed to make the cut-off time for the bike portion at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in 2016. Their second try ended after realizing they had biked 40 miles with a flat tire on Johnny’s chariot.

On their third attempt, a fellow competitor ran into them. The fourth try was marred by thunderous rain, and heat exhaustion in 100-plus degree temperatures forced Jeff out of their fifth attempt.

Despite the missteps, Johnny remained positive.

“Failure is not really failure to me,” he said. “You learn new things from every experience. So I would say to myself, ‘OK, we didn’t make that race. Now what can we learn from that race to help us move forward?’ That’s how I’ve always approached my disability and my cerebral palsy.”

Jeff Agar said he and his wife Becki have consistently encouraged their son to view the times he has fallen or dropped something as part of the maturation process. He said he accepted the same advice when considering whether to stop competing in the Ironman.

“It would be very disingenuous and pretty hypocritical of us to then say, ‘Well, we failed a few times, and we should just give up,’” he said. “His goal was to become an Ironman. So we just applied the same thing to ourselves and held ourselves to the same standard and said, ‘We’ve got to keep going until a physical limitation keeps us from doing it,’ and that’s what drove us on to keep training and pushing and learning and finding a way to get through it.”

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Johnny Agar has been pushing the envelope since birth. Despite being unable to move or carry out physical tasks without support, Johnny is fully communicative and was on the dean’s list every semester he attended Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before graduating from the school with a double bachelor’s in sports management and business administration.

Ironman Maryland competitors Johnny, right, and Jeff Agar look on during the competition. After five attempts to complete an Ironman competition in as many years, the Agar father-son duo from Rockford, Michigan, finished the 140.6-mile course of Ironman Maryland in Cambridge just before midnight on Sept. 17. Johnny, 28, has cerebral palsy.

Where he once traveled a maximum of 23 steps, Johnny had since walked a mile in several 5K races.

Becki Agar said the best advice she and her husband received about Johnny came from their neonatal intensive care unit doctor.

“He said, ‘You can treat him as if he has cerebral palsy or you can just love him as your son and take it day by day,’” she said. “Jeff and I walked out of that office and said, ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re going to treat him like he’s our son.’”

After the Ironman World Championship in 2016, Johnny discovered an Under Armour advertisement featuring swimmer Michael Phelps, the 28-time Olympic medalist from Rodgers Forge. Inspired by the “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light” line in the “Rule Yourself” advertisement, Johnny trained for his next Ironman, which his mother recorded and then spliced into a side-by-side video with Phelps.

Phelps caught wind of Johnny and connected with the family before father and son took part in a half Ironman in Florida in 2017. Since then, Johnny has appeared in Under Armour ads with Phelps and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and is an ambassador for the Baltimore-based apparel company.

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“At Under Armour we believe in the power of sports as a unifier,” said Flynn Burch, Under Armour’s director of global philanthropy and community engagement, in a statement. “When we first met Johnny and his father, Jeff, we saw the determination, the resiliency and the grit that resembles the exact DNA of our brand. From that initial moment to now, Johnny continues to amaze us with his accomplishments and the inspiration he provides us all to be the best version of ourselves. We are proud that our brand has been a part of his and his dad’s athletic journey to being named an Ironman Athlete.”

Jeff Agar said he initially doubted his wife’s optimistic outlook after he and Johnny did not finish in Kona.

“She kept saying, ‘Something great is going to come out of this whole thing.’ I just couldn’t see it,” he said. “I thought finishing in Hawaii would have been great because you had hit a goal and then you could move on to other things. But had we made it in Kona, there would never have been a relationship with Under Armour or with Michael Phelps that Johnny has developed. So just some extraordinary things have happened because of those failures that just would not have happened otherwise.”

Ironman Maryland competitor Johnny Agar is strapped to a kayak during the water portion of the race. Johnny, 28, has cerebral palsy and was carried through the competition by his father, Jeff.

At Saturday’s Ironman Maryland, the Agar duo said the turning point occurred when they finished the bike portion of the competition with about 20 minutes to spare.

“The bike has always been our Kryptonite, so to speak,” Johnny said with a laugh. “When we completed the bike, we knew that we had enough time to run and walk. So it was a tremendous accomplishment for us, and that’s when I really felt comfortable.”

Becki Agar revealed that her husband’s hamstrings had tightened to the point where he couldn’t straighten his legs during the run portion of the Ironman. He was so nauseous and depleted after the finish that he required assistance in a medical tent.

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But she said watching her husband and son cross the finish line was one of the best moments in her 34 years of marriage to Jeff, which the couple celebrated on Sept. 10.

Ironman Maryland competitors Johnny, right, and Jeff Agar cross the finish line. After five attempts to complete an Ironman competition in as many years, the Agar father-son duo from Rockford, Michigan, finished the 140.6-mile course of Ironman Maryland in Cambridge just before midnight on Sept. 17. Johnny, 28, has cerebral palsy.

“I can’t even explain it,” she said through tears. “It’s been so many years of hard training, and I’ve seen what Jeff has gone through to accomplish this for Johnny. It just made me so unbelievably proud. … I was just in awe of the man that finished with our son. He was so unbelievably determined. I’ve never seen him so determined and so focused in my life. I just knew that he was not going to give up.”

So what’s next for father and son? Becki Agar compared the notion of competing in another Ironman to getting pregnant shortly after giving childbirth. But Jeff admitted that he would like to return to the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii one more time to watch Johnny cross the finish line on his own.

“Now that we know what we know and we’ve done so many other events and we know how to do more of the training the right way, that would be the peak,” he said. “Him finishing in Hawaii with tens of thousands of people screaming and just going crazy would be phenomenal for him.”

That’s fine, said Johnny — on one condition.

“I want to enjoy a few doughnuts first,” he joked.


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