This endurance athlete with cerebral palsy and his dad finally crossed the Ironman finish line after failing 5 times: 'The culmination of everything that we worked on'

Completing an Ironman Triathlon is no small feat; it's a challenge that includes running a 26.22-mile marathon, biking for 112 miles and completing a 2.4-mile swim. When father-and-son duo Jeff and Johnny Agar — aka Team Agar — competed in their first Ironman back in 2016, they failed to finish. Their next four attempts were also unsuccessful. But last month, the pair, on their sixth try, at last crossed the finish line with just four minutes and 25 seconds to spare before the competition's 17-hour completion deadline ended.

Completing the notoriously challenging triathlon is a triumph for any athlete. For Team Agar, it's also a testament to both a father's love and a son's grit and unwavering belief in himself. Now 28, Johnny was born premature at 29 weeks — a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks — and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that can affect movement and muscle tone. He and his father use specialized equipment, including a kayak for the swim portion, that enables Jeff to push or pull Johnny along the course. As the Rockford, Mich., natives approached the finish line at Ironman Maryland in Cambridge, on Sept. 17, Johnny stood, and with the help of a mobility aid, made those final steps on his own, letting out a yell as he achieved his longtime goal.

"I had all that pent-up emotion and that's how it all came out," Johnny tells Yahoo Life, adding that he tends to get emotional any time he finishes a race. "I never take one for granted, [whether] it's a 5k or Ironman."

Johnny Agar (pictured with his parents, Jeff and Becki Agar) achieved his dream of completing the Ironman with his dad after five unsuccessful attempts. (Photo: Johnny Agar Instagram)
Johnny Agar (pictured with his parents, Jeff and Becki Agar) achieved his dream of completing the Ironman with his dad after five unsuccessful attempts. (Photo: Johnny Agar Instagram)

While they're now established endurance athletes with the Ironman finisher shirts and medals — not to mention appearances in Under Armour ads alongside Michael Phelps and Dwayne Johnson — to prove it, Team Agar didn't really get its start until 2012. Seeing his son's interest in participating in races for myTeam Triumph, Jeff decided to get involved himself. "I wonder how tough a 5k could be," Jeff, who describes his previous athletic endeavors as mostly high school baseball, remembers thinking at the time. The first race was "brutal." The second one saw them being outpaced by "an 80-year-old power walker." But the pair resolved to train, and eventually set their sights on bigger challenges.

"It kind of snowballed, and there was no expectation we would do anything of any consequence like we are now," says Jeff, who notes that, "without Johnny I would not be doing this stuff." 

"I look at athletes as my parallel to how I need to succeed in life," Johnny says of his athletic drive. "They experience failure multiple times in order for them to succeed with things. And so I think having their positivity, having the mental fortitude to keep going, is really what inspires me. When you're doing something like an Ironman or any kind of endurance challenge, it's not really about beating somebody. It's about competing against yourself. And that's really what's been a drive for me, is competing against myself and really understanding what I can do if I work hard enough to achieve it."

Father and son set their sights on training for the Ironman about seven years ago. They then qualified for the 2016 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii — Jeff still marvels at their daring to start with the "hardest" of all the Ironmans — but failed to complete the course because they missed the timing cutoff for the biking portion.

"It was a failure of epic proportions," Jeff tells Yahoo Life, but remembers his wife Becki's assurances that "good things are going to come out of this" because NBC was filming them. Sure enough, that exposure led to their support from Under Armour and the confidence to give the competition another go. And another. And another. And another. And another.

"Failure is just part of the process for me," says Johnny. "I look at it as, you know, we didn't make this race. Now how can we learn from that race and translate it into the next one, and the next one after that. This is the culmination of everything that we worked on and everything that we learned from the previous races, and it translated into a finish in our sixth one."

Johnny celebrated that victory with a heavy helping of ice cream — a rare sweet treat he otherwise avoids to maintain his weight ahead of races. He and his dad also plan to mark their achievement permanently by getting matching tattoos; mom Becki is currently working on getting a design created.

"It's very traditional when someone actually finishes an Ironman to get a tattoo on their calf," explains Jeff. "So we'll be getting Ironman tattoos on our calves. ... It's kind of a painful area I've heard, but anyway, we'll tough it out."

Speaking of toughing it out, Johnny has, characteristically, already set his sights on his next physical challenge: getting invited to race once again in Kona, which he considers the team's "long-term goal." As far as a personal goal, he'd like to walk in a race "at some point in my life."

"When he first ... had the idea to walk in a race, he'd never walked more than 23 steps," Jeff notes. "He said he wanted to walk a mile — there's like five or 6,000 steps in a mile. He could only walk 23. ... He decided he wanted to walk a mile and so he kept working and working on it and getting better and better. But it has been a long, steady, slow process with a lot of failure along the way. But it all fits in with what he is trying to accomplish: You set a goal, and then things start working towards trying to achieve that goal."

—Video produced by Olivia Schneider.

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