News & Updates

9 January 2024 • Para Athletics

Michael the model targets Para glory

Michael Whittaker smashed the New Zealand men’s half marathon T13 record at the 2023 Auckland Marathon. Credit: Michael Dawson

Read the incredible story of fashion model and Para athlete Michael Whittaker who harbours some big ambitions in the future.

It is a long shot but not impossible that endurance runner Michael Whittaker could complete the latest chapter in his remarkable life by competing at the Paris Paralympic Games later this year.

In a life less ordinary Michael enjoyed a portion of his younger life as a New York-based catwalk model, only to be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic disorder of the eyes that causes a gradual loss of vision. While learning to adapt to these changing circumstances, the PhD student in English Literature happened to stumble across running during the Covid lockdowns.

It is a passion that has crystallised in more recent times, and such is his ability – in 2023 he set a national T13 half marathon record – it could yet see the 33-year-old compete on the biggest stage, adding another unbelievable phase to his life.

“It is probably a lot easier said than done,” said Michael of competing at the Paris Paralympic Games. “A lot of dominoes need to fall my way, but that would be the dream.”

Born and raised in Whangaparaoa on the Hibiscus Coast, Michael played touch and rugby at the local park with his brothers but did very little organised sport in his youth.

However, a sliding doors moment arrived after he was scouted as a potential model when walking down Queen Street aged 17. Keen to explore the unexpected opportunity, Michael quickly took to his new vocation. He enjoyed “a degree of success” as a model in New Zealand before moving to Sydney to further his career. His meteoric rise continued when shortly after his 18th birthday the former Orewa College student moved to New York.

A runway fashion model for several years, he worked on all the major global fashion weeks — New York, Paris, Milan and London. On top of catwalk stints, he would shoot for a who’s-who of designer brands, including Balenciaga, Prada, Thom Browne, and Dior.

“It was an interesting period of my life,” he recalls. “Peeling back the curtain and having access to a world that is very much mythologised, and very far from my childhood experiences.”

Maintaining a thriving modelling career and studying in both New Zealand and the USA, Michael, however, noticed while working for a period in Tokyo a diminishing of his night vision.

“I would have been aged about 22 or 23 at the time and I was not sure why my night vision had almost entirely disappeared,” he says. “That was the first time I recognised I wasn’t seeing normally.”

After seeking medical guidance he discovered he had the genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa – which causes a gradual narrowing of one’s visual field, tunnelling toward inevitable blindness.

Boasting a successful career at the time, the news was initially a little hard to comprehend.

“The long-term implications were spelt out to me, although at that time it seemed quite hypothetical,” he explains. “I was not entirely sure what this meant, so I compartmentalised this element of my life. In a way it was business as usual throughout much of my 20s, until the condition started to have a real impact on my daily life as I reached my late 20s.”

Told he could no longer drive at 25, the condition has progressed so that he was matched with a guide dog, Tāne, in 2022. Today, the Parnell-based student – who still works as a part-time model – leads a very different life today than in his younger days.

In another unexpected turn, however, it was during the lengthy Auckland lockdowns that his life was enriched thanks to a unique entry into the world of running.

While Michael had experienced running a first half marathon with his brother in 2016, he believed then his vision challenges would make further running unwise, and so stopped there. The Covid pandemic, though, would bring about new opportunities.

With scarcely any traffic on the roads during lockdown and with time on his hands, Michael started running. It became part of his daily ritual, and he found the more he ran the more he enjoyed the experience.

“With little traffic about I could run safely in the middle of the road. The lockdowns bizarrely provided me with a perfect set of circumstances to fall in love with running,” explains Michael. “Running on busy footpaths with low hanging trees about and navigating curbs and cars is dangerous, but running in the middle of the empty road was ideal.”

Running the 2021 Auckland Waterfront Half Marathon with a friend, he completed the distance “comfortably” in 1:32, after which his friend encouraged him to seek out faster runners to train with.

He was put in touch with Zebedee Stone, a podium finisher at the 2020 Queenstown Marathon, who was happy to aid Michael’s running education as both his guide and casual coach. Michael further hardened his running interest by joining the Whippets Running Project and subsequently in 2022 showed huge improvements. At the 2021 Auckland Marathon (which took place in January 2022 because of Covid) he ran 1:25:04 – just nine months later at the 2022 Auckland Marathon he improved his time to 1:17:58 with Zebedee acting as his guide. 

“It was gratifying to see improvements, but I was very surprised with how the Whippets guys were training,” he says. “I was seeing big improvements by only running three times a week. But through training with the club, I realised just how obsessive everyone was and dedicated to the pursuit.”

Continuing his running education in the middle of last year, he would run for the first time on a regular synthetic 400m track and connected with Hamish Meacheam, who has coached sprinters Mitch Joynt and Joe Smith to the 2023 Para Athletics World Championships in Paris.

The experience has further accelerated Michael’s running journey, with Hamish providing greater structure and accountability to his running. Hamish has also helped demystify the running jargon and inspire Michael through his work with other leading Para athletes.

“He’s been extremely encouraging, very personable, and has ensured that the track is a very welcoming environment. It’s given me a sense of belonging,” explains Michael of the role Hamish has played.

Training five or six days a week, often alongside his current guide Logan Griffin – one of the founding members of Whippets, Michael has further embedded himself within the club culture and is eternally grateful for the efforts of his guide.

“Logan is a former top cyclist and maybe it is because of this that he has a remarkable ability to verbalise any hazards,” he adds. “Most of the time he always runs half-a-step ahead of me and keeps me updated on any problems,” adds Michael, who today has less than 10 per cent vision.

Targeting the New Zealand Half Marathon men’s T13 record of former Paralympic champion Tim Prendergast was Michael’s primary goal of 2023, and he was delighted to successfully achieve the feat at the 2023 Auckland Marathon last October, running a rapid 1:14:19.

Pleased to continue to “chip away” at his half marathon PB, more recently he has focused more on the 5000m – a distance he hopes to pursue internationally in the future. After recording a highly encouraging 15:50 time trial, he followed that up with a 16:18:01 clocking on his first official track 5000m at the Daikin Night of 5s in Auckland last month. “While it wasn’t the race I had hoped for,” says Michael, “I think it was invaluable to me all the same. Learning to deal with — and come back stronger from — injury seems to me like one of the hardest parts of running. I didn’t get it quite right this time, but I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to try at it again.”

Boasting some big ambitions for 2024, he plans to fly to Dubai in February to be formally internationally classified. This will then allow him to race overseas, with the 2024 World Para Athletics Championships staged in Kobe in May a possibility. He will need to find a significant improvement to make the Paris Paralympics, although given his newness to the sport and scope for improvement the 2028 Los Angeles Games may be a more realistic longer-term goal.

But can he quite believe his running journey over the past two or three years?

“I’ve had a lot to learn but the experience has also been massively rewarding — to have made many new friends and to have been embraced and encouraged by some phenomenal athletes,” he explains. “It would have been inconceivable to me that three years ago I would be spending the majority of my free time running, and that as I am losing my sight I’m becoming faster and faster at running, of all things. It is surreal, but maybe all the more enjoyable for that.”