Healthy Talks with Michael Agyin
At Mid Strike Magazine we excel at covering stories of the diverse run community. We’ve touched on various stories, topics, runners, achievements, goals, etc., and are always able to draw an abundance of inspiration. But what if there were even more stories we could become inspired from? During races, we usually find that extra push from the crowd, but every now and then we see fellow runners who have disabilities – from wheelchair athletes, runners with autism and so forth – and they all naturally have our same look of determination to finish the race no matter the time, pain, or obstacle.
No matter what THEY FINISH THE RACE.
This month, Mid Strike Magazine has the pleasure of speaking to one of these runners, who is Deaf and fights type 2 diabetes. But that hasn’t stopped him from running five marathons and over 50 half marathons. Let’s chat with Compton’s own Michael Agyin to discuss his journey, his Deaf disability advocacy, and most of all his successes.
MSM: Welcome to Mid Strike Magazine! It is our privilege to chat with you. I’ve come across many people with disabilities but honestly, that’s a word I never really like to use. It’s simply a challenge for that person that they can conquer with the proper help and care, but also, we are all the same and we all have feelings. So, let’s start with your run early run journeys. What made you want to get into running?
Michael: What made me want to get into running? When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and I needed to be more physically active in my life I saw running as an opportunity to gain more life. I started as a walker, which then led to becoming a jogger, which then led to becoming a “runner”. I didn’t live to run, I run to live, and every time I finished a run or a race I felt as if I was gaining back more life. Running took me to a place of strength I didn’t know was in me. I knew that running was so much than a sport….running helped me understand what was one of the worse days of my life. Being diagnosed became a springboard to pick myself up and get busy living.
I found my inner strength in fitness, running, and an inspiring community of like-minded people. I was able to transform into a version of myself that I never knew was there: brave, fit, alive. Not merely existing but living and thriving. I believe in the run so much because every time I finish I got back a little bit more of my humanity, I got to be whole again as I may have a disease but the disease doesn’t have me. With running I’m a witness that it’s true you can’t make a new beginning but you sure as hell can make a new ending. This is why after 10 years I continue to run.
MSM: Did you find it a challenge at first with fitting in or navigating through a run with other runners?
Michael: Yes. When I started running I was actually alone, didn’t know anyone, and I was too shy to talk to anyone. My runs were extremely solo, a bit lonely, and nobody knew I was Deaf in these spaces. I really just tried to blend in and do my best to understand everything when I started to run races, and not always notice what was going on. Then one day there was this older runner named Lula Carter that noticed me at different races [and] expos and she figured out that I was Deaf. [She] introduced herself and we became friends – a big sister and mentor to me in the run community. She introduced me to my first run club 5K and beyond made sure that I was understanding things and feel welcome, introduced me to other runners, learned some ASL…she helped navigate all the things I needed to know in my first year running and understanding the running community.
It really became something I had to adapt to as I had to learn from other runners and coaches. I couldn’t follow everything but people would be more patient with me or I would figure out ways to keep up with runners if I didn’t understand the route, which helped me to run faster and keep up because who wants to get lost! I would also say when I was training for the Los Angeles Marathon with Team Nutribullet I was fortunate enough to have an ASL interpreter who also was training for the race and it made a world of a difference. I understood my run coaches directions with ease and it actually helped me become a better runner because I was understanding the things I needed to do correctly when it came to form, nutrition, breathing techniques or just the basic conversation that goes in the runs were [now] accessible to me and that’s made the whole experience one I’ll never forget.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” and I want to see a more accessible world for deaf people and the only way I can do that is by speaking up. If I don’t who will? And I understand that I’m fortunate enough to have a platform to speak and I decided to use it even if I’m afraid because if I can help one person be more inclusive, practice accessibility, learn some ASL, it starts a domino effect and we’re all better for it. Deaf people, people with disabilities have always been around so when I say can you hear me I’m saying we exist we always have but now you “hear” us.
MSM: One word that is a constant for you is to be a bridge. Finding your place within the crowd, the community, to be able to blend in. Early in life how did you deal with some of these struggles? At what point did you say to yourself “I’m not going to let this keep you down or hold you back”?
Michael: I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve been Deaf since I was a young child and I’ve dealt with my deafness as something that’s part of who I am but not who I am, which helped me to deal with whatever life threw at me because I knew being angry doesn’t solve anything. So I’ve learned to use humor and be patient, learn problem-solving skills, and be creative in learning to communicate with people. I have my days when the reality [hits me] of knowing I live in a world where society isn’t normally accommodating to my disability, and while not fun I refuse to let society tell me I don’t matter.
MSM: You’re from Compton with parents from the African country of Ghana. Being from both backgrounds can make you have some very tough skin and strong-willed. How has this molded you growing up?
Michael: It really molded me because my parents didn’t allow me be different. I had to do everything my siblings did even if I couldn’t understand everything or do everything, My mother wanted me to feel I was part of the family, the tribe. And while some of the choices my parents made weren’t correct for me as I honestly didn’t realize I was Deaf because I was put into speech therapy and learned to lip read and talk, which lead me to not learning sign language until I was 18 and in college, I always knew I was loved that I belonged to a proud people who are resilient, strong, resourceful and kind. I believe having a strong sense of worth from my background allowed me get back up when life kicked me down. Knowing my heritage as Ghanaian-American and my Ashanti tribe always reminds me to stay the course. My culture is my identity and personality…it gives me spiritual, intellectual and emotional distinction from others and I’m proud of it.
MSM: I was able to listen to your Ted Talk which was pretty awesome and inspiring, you mentioned three of your main struggles:
• Your African Identity
• Your Deaf Identity
• And your largest struggle – your Black Identity
Being a Black man in America is already difficult enough, what was it like for you having to deal with all three?
Michael: As a young man it was confusing because I honestly didn’t know how to navigate all three at the same time. I have a disability where I lack sound that didn’t allow me to fully be part of the world, I have a funny last name that people couldn’t pronounce properly or thought I was weird because I ate fufu and drink soup with my hands, I grew up in a Ghanaian household where I learned my parent’s culture and viewpoint of the world and understood it but with American sensibilities. I knew from school and from my Black friends how America sees Black men and how we’re treated differently because of our color, compared to Africa where we are taught to be proud of who we are, that we come from a nation of kings and queens of the Ashanti, that there is no shame in being Black.
So as an adult, it’s been empowering knowing I can draw from all those experiences, from those identities, and be the best version of a Black man in America as I’m a first-generation Deaf African-American man.
MSM: Switching up the pace a little bit. Take us through some of your race experiences. What was it like finishing the first race you ever ran vs finishing your first marathon, half marathon. Which race was your favorite and which one meant the most to you?
Michael: My first race was the Kaiser Permanente 10K in 2011. I had no idea what I was doing! I was actually afraid because I didn’t know how my body was going to respond as this [the] third month of my diagnosis and I originally wanted to do the 5K but it was sold out! To make matters worse it was raining but as the race started I was just in my groove and wasn’t worried about time, I just wanted to figure out what my body could do. As the the day went on the sun came out I knew I could do it… and when I crossed the finish line they gave me a medal I was like whoa I could get used to this! It was just the whole excitement of being put there, pushing yourself to do something you think you couldn’t do before and I was like well I’m following my doctor’s order to get some exercise in! It was win/win. After that doing races became an obsession because I wanted to get better with time with every race to see what I can really do with training and dedication, and I’ve been able to meet many of my running goals.
My first marathon was actually the Long Beach Marathon in 2013. That year I decided to do a “35 races Mikey tour” so I did 12 5K’s, 12 10K’s, 10 half marathons, and one marathon…and the marathon was wild because 26.2 is no joke. It was a test of my will. You have to really be mentally prepared as well as physically, and while it was rough I enjoyed every minute of it. Crossing the finish line that day was everything. I felt like I was beating my diabetes, that I ran so far that diabetes couldn’t catch me. I also knew I needed a real marathon training plan which lead me to Team Nunribullet and I ended up running three straight LA Marathons. Having an ASL interpreter changed the game for me in being a better marathon runner and doing these races was a love letter to the city that carried me when I was at my lowest and lifted me up to keep running til I crossed the finish line. After my first LA Marathon I kissed the ground, my second I cried, my third I lifted my hands up and jumped for joy, my fourth I smiled coming full circle. Every race a journey that always begins with a single step.
There too many races to say I have a favorite! But I really loved New Year’s Race Los Angeles and it was the only nighttime half marathon I ran every year! When it was a half marathon I got a chance to run inside Dodgers stadium which was an amazing experience! The best part was actually improving my finish time every year…that’s how I knew my training was paying off! But those hills though! Yikes! All my races mean the most from the 5K to the marathon, every race tells a story, a journey. In fact, I’ve finished all my races with gratitude because I never know when this is going to end. Doctors don’t recommend running to people with diabetes so it always been a joy to lace up. Even if I’ve gotten a bit slower over the years I still have passion for the run, nothing was given, every race I’ve finished was earned. I’m truly proud of that.
MSM: Five Marathons is a feat within itself, and usually that means there’s a 6 star on the radar. Do you see yourself conquering that challenge?
Michael: Yes I’m never one to back down from a challenge! For that 6 star, my dream is to run the Boston Marathon. I was actually born in Massachusetts so for me it would be a full circle to do this one. With all its history and reverence it’s a must-do, and it’s going to happen! Watch!!
MSM: “Being true to yourself and embracing who you are” has helped you become the person that you are today. Take our readers through that quote you mentioned and what it means to you.
Michael: It means understanding that you can only be yourself. Trying to be anything but yourself is a setup for failure. Of course, everyone is not going to love or accept you and that’s alright, being true to yourself and embracing who you are is being completely comfortable in your skin, that you’re no longer tied down to society’s expectations of you, but your own. Things won’t always be perfect or go your way but if you’re living in your truth nobody can take anything away from you and you’ll always be able to hold your head up with a smile…always!!!
MSM: Disability Rights Advocacy. For our readers, take us into a little bit of what this consists of and some of the work you do within this.
Michael: I’m a Deaf and Disability rights advocate. I work to ensure that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are welcomed, have accessibility, and are included in contemporary society. Our focus is on inclusion, diversity, disability, and accessibility. I’m definitely a bridge builder to connect the Deaf and hearing worlds to be able to communicate with each other as the Deaf can’t learn to hear but hearing people can learn Sign Language. Last year I started Compton ASL Club as a way to teach sign language to my community and share Deaf awareness and culture! A lot of work I do is to bring awareness to people with disabilities as well as helping people understand the laws such as American with Disabilities Act which protects and give civil rights to people with disabilities. I work with mostly youth with disabilities and it’s has allowed me to give them tools to help them believe they deserve to be part of society, that they have rights and that having a disability isn’t a problem, yes a challenge, but never the problem…the problem are people with bad attitudes!
MSM: Runners almost always tend to find ourselves joining a run family as it’s very difficult training for races solo. Compton Run Club has opened up community runs in Compton with group runs open to everyone. What drew you to the Club?
“I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve been Deaf since I was a young child and I’ve dealt with my deafness as something that’s part of who I am but not who I am, which helped me to deal with whatever life threw at me because I knew being angry doesn’t solve anything. So I’ve learned to use humor and be patient, learn problem-solving skills, and be creative in learning to communicate with people.”
Michael: Compton Run Club is very new but I love that people can find a runners community in their own neighborhood. Especially in Compton where we need this energy as our city isn’t known for health and fitness. I’ve joined many run clubs outside my city and I still usually run with all my original run clubs but there something that feels amazing to run in your own backyard where you grew up and be able to run places that are familiar to you and meet people that live In the same area as you. Although the pandemic has limited me in joining in these runs the fact that it exists is everything!
MSM: As a runner I LOVE to see run clubs that are formed communities that also represent the community they are from. What are some of the focuses of the group that runners can expect to learn when they become members of the group.
Michael: The biggest thing people will learn is to change the perception that people in Compton don’t run or that we don’t care about health and fitness here. That when you run with the group nobody gets left behind and its a safe space to be a runner no matter if you’re fast or slow everyone a runner when they lace up. As running isn’t just about sports it’s about building community the art of the run for the love of Compton.
MSM: “I hear you but can you hear me.” Very powerful words and meaning. You found your footing when you were in college, usually when most of us find our way but for you this was different. You learned ALS (American Sign Language) which essentially set you on the path now that you’ve been on ever since. As I sit here writing these questions to you I’ve said to myself what are some things I may be able to do to bring more awareness to this especially for runners that are hearing impaired. Do you find yourself being a constant educator while running/not running?
Michael: Yes, and it can be exhausting sometimes but I’ve come to understand this is part of my purpose. There’s a quote that goes “Be the change you want to see in the world” and I want to see a more accessible world for deaf people and the only way I can do that is by speaking up. If I don’t who will? And I understand that I’m fortunate enough to have a platform to speak and I decided to use it even if I’m afraid because if I can help one person be more inclusive, practice accessibility, learn some ASL, it starts a domino effect and we’re all better for it. Deaf people, people with disabilities have always been around so when I say can you hear me I’m saying we exist we always have but now you “hear” us.
MSM: For you, how has the representation changed in the run world as well as the non-runner’s world when it comes to the disabled experiences with folks that have hearing disabilities. Do you feel that you’ve seen improvements over the years?
Michael: Yes, but we still have a long way to go. The biggest change is technology has made the world more accessible, with such things as texting, transcribe apps, FaceTime etc. But what’s been harder to change are people attitudes as some people really do have issues with people with disabilities or refuse to provide accommodations and that’s unfortunate. Which leads to me saying the problem isn’t the disability the problem is the environment change this and you will see huge changes in both the runners and non runner’s world. I’ll also admit that I truly love and excited that the runners/ fitness world really starting to take into more consideration of the needs of all as sports/ fitness is for everyone and everyone should be included this is how we build an accessible community for all.
MSM: What’s on the horizon for Michael Agyin? What can our readers look out for and how can we keep up and follow?
Michael: Well there’s a lot going on! But for now, I’m teaching ASL and bringing awareness to Deaf culture, Deaf achievements, and Deaf social advocacy through Compton ASL Club which anyone can follow on Instagram. I’m continuing to speak up for sports accessibility so these spaces can be more aware and welcoming to people with disabilities. Exercise is such an important part of our wellness and it needs to also be directed to people with disabilities for long-term health and not just see us as an afterthought. I definitely want to talk to sports brands and re-imagine how they see disabilities and give a platform to include them in sports promotions and advertising so people with disabilities can see themselves in this area of sports and be more inspired to get into fitness.
MSM: From us here at Mid Strike Magazine you are a true inspiration not only to those that are with a disability but for all of us. We truly thank you for what you are doing in the community. Any last words for our readers?
Michael: Thank you for having me!! I think my last words are to always make people feel welcome. You don’t know how a simple gesture can go a long in making someone feel part of the running community! So do Good, Give back and be a blessing to others.