A few weeks back, we received an email from one of our readers. It read:
My name is Michael Mills and I am currently training for the 2013 Spartan Sprint in Conyers, GA. I am looking for all pointers anyone can give, training and etc. I am actually going to crawl almost the entire 3 miles of the course. I will use my wheelchair some, but the majority of the time I will be crawling.
Can you help with any upper body training and or advice? I am a wheelchair track and road racer. I have the strength and the heart, just need a little advice.
Our initial reply was simple:
Thanks for reaching out and stopping by the site. We’d love to help you out any way possible. Are you looking for coaching down there in GA? Or just some tips, etc? Let me know and we’ll make it happen.
And after a bit more back and forth via email and telephone, we became enthralled with Michael’s story and what he’d decided to do. Michael reminded us of our friend, Ernest Gagnon, whom we reported on last year (and who is now taking the cyclocross world by storm), so we decided that we had to learn even more.
Who is Michael Mills? For starters, he’s a 36-year-old, father of two (plus one on the way), who holds down your typical full-time job and enjoys spending time with his family at their home in Convington, GA, just outside of Atlanta. But he also has a history—and a future—worth sharing.
In May of 1993, at the age of 16, he was involved in a car accident with a drunk driver. As a result, he was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the next few years in and out of hospitals and rehab trying to get back to living a normal life. He even had to learn the basics all over again: how to tie his shoes, get dressed, bathe, cook and more.
“After my accident, my father told me I was never going to walk again. I was scared; I was scared of the unknown. I was scared of not knowing what my life would be like without the use of my legs,” he explained.
“But soon, I started to get excited about the challenge of life and became scared of other things: I was scared of being bored, I was scared of becoming normal, scared of not taking care of myself and dying at a young age.”
A few years later in 1996, Michael found the outlet he was looking for. While staying up late one night to watch the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he tuned into a wheelchair exhibition event–a 1,500 meter race–and was instantly hooked.
Michael went out a few days later and found a company that sold used wheelchairs. He bought one on the spot and took it out for a spin the very same day. He estimates that he hit nearly 30mph descending a hill during that very first ride. Afterwards, he picked up a pair of batting gloves and wrapped them in duct tape to protect his hands from burns…a valuable lesson from the day.
Eventually, after months of hard work and training, he entered the world of racing and started competing in small local events before working his way up to the Peachtree Wheelchair Race, one of the fastest and largest 10K wheelchair races in the world. Since then, he estimates he’s competed in over 160 various road and track events on the amateur and elite circuit.
But like most of us, 16 years in a single sport can start to grow stale, and so Michael began his search for a new challenge.
“I have always searched for something different and loved Crossfit and obstacle style course races but never saw an outlet for the disabled to join until recently,” he told us.
“I was actually flipping through Facebook and saw a photo of a man with no legs, and only one arm. He was from Team XTREME. I saw him and his team trekking through mud, barbed wire and climbing ropes. Then I thought to myself, that looks fun. It looks like a challenge. I bet I can do that. Heck, I want to do that…no I NEED to do that.”
From there, not unlike the early days of his wheelchair racing, it snowballed.
Motivated by a desire to serve as an inspiration to others and beat down the stigma that so many challenged athletes face, Michael set his sights on the Spartan Sprint in March 2013 and sent off the above email in search of guidance.
So, after realizing that Michael’s story was amazingly similar to many of our own, we introduced him to Adam Lake–NYC Firefighter, Ironman Coach, Strength Trainer and friend of ours–who will help him take the first steps towards Spartan glory. Adam is a veteran coach of TriLife one of the most prominent endurance racing programs in New York City as well as an instructor with As1, a newly founded strength & fitness center catering to the hardcore crowd. Michael has also reached out with professional obstacle racer Hobie Call, who is helping to get him access to obstacles to practice on.
And as of last week, his training–albeit unconventional–has begun. Six days a week, Michael can be found doing a wide array of exercises that focus on upper-body strength: flipping truck tires, lifting cinderblocks, rolling uphill with a 40lb vest strapped to him, and treadmill crawling –which always garners special attention when he has to hit the gym (as does his signature training mask; a super hero-ish looking device that simulates training at higher altitudes by limiting oxygen intake).
But even with that, the biggest obstacles aren’t awkward glances, weights, ropes or hills. In his words:
“It’s the misconception that people think that I’m not an actual athlete. There are many of us (athletes with disabilities) that are active, with families, lives, jobs, etc. We are just the same and really no different than anyone else. That includes racing.”
“I would love to see obstacle races and events like Crossfit include us in their events. There are so many out there like myself, but many are afraid to branch into it….we just need someone to go forth and attempt and do it. I’m hoping that’s where I come in and serve as an example for anyone else in my shoes,” he explained.
“I want to be one of the pioneers that bring obstacle racing and sports like Crossfit to the disabled world.”
All that and Michael still finds time and energy to partner with a local charity, Bert’s Big Adventure, a group that provides chronically and terminal ill children and their families with trips to Disney World and is funded primarily through public donations.
Michael also has no intention of stopping after March and the Spartan Race. He’s envisioned himself training with his children who he hopes, along with his wife, will push him to be a better person. He also hopes to inspire others, physically challenged or not, to take on something they deem impossible…something that tests their limits…something that terrifies them.
“We as a society have gotten lazy and are full of excuses. We need something to motivate us and make us feel bad and push ourselves away from the table, away from the remote and off the couch,” he pleads. “To me, that something is fear.”
And as he so eloquently puts it:
“I face a challenge with fear because if you are not afraid of it, you won’t get the feeling of victory that comes with defeating it.”
So like Ernest, we will be watching Michael over the coming months (you can follow his facebook page here). And when winter hits full-stride and you’re on the couch watching newscasts about A-Rod’s whining, Lance’s downfall, and Kobe’s trade demands, just remember that there are athletes out there competing for more than just a few dollars.
*Special thanks to Jerry King of J King Images for hit photo contributions to this article.