Words With Friends: Ashantai Yungai on Cycling with MS
Ashantai Yungai is a father, athlete, calligraphist, and sock hoarding phenom. He's also a close friend of the shop, and light in the life of many. Perhaps the most impressive part of Ashantai is his ability to do all of this while dealing wit multiple sclerosis. Below is an interview with him, revealing his keys to happiness, what cycling means to him, and his work toward Bike MS Utah. Bike MS: Harmons Best Dam Bike Ride is Utah's largest cycling-specific fundraiser, with nearly 1,500 cyclists riding and raising funds. Based out of Logan, Utah, Bike MS is an excellent way to promote both multiple sclerosis awareness as well as cycling as an inclusive, lifelong sport. If you would like to donate to Ashantai's team and support MS, please click HERE. Your donation helps those who are affected by this disorder. Ashantai rides for those who are not able to ride a bike. Alvin Holbrook: Obviously we don't know each other all that well, but every time you're in the shop, I think everyone knows that Ashantai is here. You're really jovial. What's your secret? Ashantai Yungai: It's not a secret-secret per say. To kind of tell the story, I need to back up ten or maybe twelve years ago. I was going through a divorce and before that I was really quiet; I didn't say much. If you heard me after that, you'd never guess that I was this really quiet shy guy. Going through a divorce, it was partially the question of “how do I meet women?”, but I read something to the effect that said, “treat every person that you mean as if they were a friend you haven't seen in a long time.” Just like catching up. And that's how I've treated everyone from that point on, just as a friend I've never met. So if I don't know your name, I say “tell me your name”, or “tell me something about you”. I want to know who you are and what makes you happy, and what makes life good for you. And so that's the secret for me, to treat everyone like a long lost friend. Maybe you've forgotten their name, and some stories, but you already know that person. So it's like, so we already know each other, now let’s catch up. How have you been in the last ten years? AH: I like that. I definitely try to do that, but my mood just ebbs and flows and I’m not very effective. AS: I think that's a personality thing too, right? Certain things wake you up, and my divorce woke me up. I could pretend to be quiet and shy again, or I can just be who I really am. And once I decided to be who I really am, all of it just came out. I started treating people like friends I haven't seen in a long time. Part of it I think is a personality that came out during the divorce. When I tell people that I was quiet and shy at one point, they say, “nope, not you. It seems like everytime you walk into the room you light it up.” But it wasn't always that way. AH: Leading off of what you said when you first meet someone and ask what makes them happy, I want to ask you: what makes you happy? AS: *Pauses* You know, I’ve never thought about that question. But I guess what makes me happy is.. The obvious and proverbial answer is being myself, and being excited about life. But I think I look at things that help me think i'm going to be as happy as i can be, and maybe that will make someone around me happy. I'm trying to think of a quote that.. The last line goes, “as we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson) So I figure if I can be happy and show others that, maybe someone can look at me and think, “man, that guy is happy. I won't be a jovial but for a little moment I can display that kind of happiness to someone around me, and that can pick someone else up too. And that's how I look at it. It's the old adage, “you never know what a smile can do, because you may have just made someone's really bad day.” or that a small gesture can help someone else think, “I can do this.” I think that's what really, truly makes me happy. Being the best person I can be, and showing it off, so someone can look at that guy and think that they can keep going instead of going the other way. I’d have to think about that though. AH: For myself, and I think I'm in the majority, but I definitely feed off of people with that personality. I try to be myself and bring light to others.. But I think people are just better equipped than others. AY: True. Life was just a different place for me. It's like the rose began to blossom. I took life post-divorce for what it was, and you have two choices: you can lay down, cry, and be sad about it, and I've had that moment too. But in the long run, what's your choice going to be? I chose happiness. I remember reading a thing during my divorce, and paraphrasing it said, “the choice being happy and being sad is the same amount of energy. You just have to decide which one you want to be.” I've read that it takes a little bit more work to be happier and to display it around people that are sad, especially because it's easier to make a happy person sad than a sad person happy. It does take a little bit more work to be happy, but nonetheless there is a baseline where it takes the same amount of work. From that point on, you have to decide how much work you want to do, because you don't need to put in that much work to be sad. There's so much reason in the world to be sad, and a big pile of things to choose form. The happy pile isn't quite as bit, and you might have to dig to find what you want, but it's there. You have to be willing to work. AH: Pivoting a bit, I mentioned when you walk in, we know you're here. You came in about a week in a half ago, saying you had just ridden to the top of Big Cottonwood - AY: - And I was looking for Cody, yeah - AH: Why was that such a big moment for you? AY: Climbing Big Cottonwood was a big moment for me because I now have multiple sclerosis. My pedaling and pedaling efficiency is slower; it takes a bit longer to get up hills and certain places. But that was a big deal because I made it all the way to the top. Last year, in September or October on a cool day, I just climbed past the S curve, about four or five miles up. I reached the point where I could see there was snow on the mountains. I realized it was going to be much colder up there, and i didn't have the gear for that. And coming down, I would've frozen to death! But it gave me the impetus to try again. You've already done five miles of fourteen total. If you do this in parts, you could totally do this. And so that Sunday before I was talking to a friend about the definition of an athlete, and that's what I always considered myself. But all of that kind of went away to a degree when I found I had MS; that's just part of the disorder. So in my mind I could still do this, but in parts. That day I decided I already did five miles, lets do seven and see how you feel. I got to seven and felt great, now let’s see how much further I can go. I got to nine miles. I got to eleven miles, and I was feeling really good. After that, I go the restaurant right before solitude. Once I got there, in my mind I thought, “I'm going to get to the top. It doesn't matter if it takes the rest of the day, but I'm getting to the top.” One pedal at a time,I just kept climbing. I kept telling myself this Tanzanian proverb that says, “little by little, a little becomes a lot.” And over that time, it proved true - little by little became fourteen miles, and I made it up Big Cottonwood! I came it to tell Cody, the first guy who sold me my Cannondale when Contender was on 9th and 9th, and that was in 2011. But he wasn't here that day; I'll come back and act like it was yesterday and say, “GUESS WHAT I JUST DID!” It felt powerful. AH: For sure, the average person cannot ride their bike up Big Cottonwood. I like that you mentioned the definition of an athlete. There was a player on the Dallas Mavericks (Chris Wright) that I was impressed by, but I noticed his effort on defense tended to go back and forth.. After the game, I learned he had MS, which made sense to me. The fact that he was out there made him a true gamer. That to me defines an athlete, someone who puts in effort to reach their ceiling. AY: Right. Talking to that lady that day, hearing the different definitions as opposed to the one definition that was in my mind, was what I patterned myself by. When I was diagnosed with MS, my definition of an athlete went down with it. Now, my definition is knowing your ceiling, and pushing beyond it. I’m a gamer, just as you said, and so that conversation with her that day made me realize that you’re not limited by your own train of thought. You can change your definition of athlete to what you're capable of, and you can live in those boundaries. And so I thought, I should try. My goal was to get two miles further than what I did the year before, but I got to the top. It made me realize that there are plenty of things that I can still do. I might be sore, but it can still be done. At the end of the day, that's what matters: doing it. A three-legged dog still has three good legs. Use them! Until you're taking a dirt nap, make the quality of your life as good as it could possibly be. AH: I think you're doing an excellent job of that. AY: To piggyback off of that, there are a couple of things about my personality blossoming that allows people to take a piece of me to take for themselves. In 2002, I went home to New Orleans where I grew up. I saw my dad, and he was really proud of me, a master’s degree in chemistry and all that stuff. He told all of his friends, like any proud parent would. His friend told me to watch what you're saying and what you do. The people who can see and hear you are watching you. That had a really profound effect on me. My kids were at a very impressionable age, and my dad always said they were always watching. For a large part of the time, I thought it was for them. Then i noticed how it affected other people, and I was surprised. I kept that in mind. In April of this year, I was talking to a friend. She has a disorder and I have one too. It wasn't a sense of comparing yourself to one another, but this idea of being a gamer, like you said. Get up every day and figure things out. If your disorder is acting up that day, you realize that on that day you can only do what you're allowed to do. The next day you're allowed to do more, so you get up and go for the next day. We were talking about that, that you have to just keep going. She said, “what are you going to do, just give up?” And I said, “yeah I could give up.” “Hold up. Wait a minute. Do you know that if YOU give up, that so many people would be on your ass?” It was a recognition that if I gave up, so many people are watching me that they'd give up on what they are doing too. It's that whole idea that spurs me. I consider this a small adversity; there are adversities that are much tougher than this. Nonetheless, it is something I have to deal with on a day to day basis, where I had to make adjustments on how I lived and do things. But you do that, and you keep going. You figure out to keep doing what you like to do until you can't anymore. Then you figure out what you can do to keep your quality of life as good as you want it to be. AH: Cody had mentioned that you regularly win jersey design contests for Bike MS. Is that true? AY: Regularly? No. We've done two
, and won one. And last year, I think we won on a bit of a show pony. The ladies that won last year said their words then jumped up on the stage and took of their shirts. They had sports bras on, but they took off their shirts and created a bit of a show. The other part of that is that i didn't do a good job of explaining my design.
Last years design was about persistence, to keep going. A disorder that limits me, but I still keep going. This year, I'm going to use the one thing I definitely have, and that's my mouth. I'm going to talk it up. This years theme is “just as a caterpillar thought its life was over, it turned into a butterfly.” That's how i've been going through this disorder in short spurs.
As I'm going through this disorder, there are times where I think, “dang it! Dang it, dang it, dang it! Come on now” I feel that I have to keep quitting. But that anonymous quote keeps me going. Yeah you're a caterpillar, you're just inching along, but now you're come to the stage where it's time for you to do what you're really meant to: to become a butterfly for everyone to see. Hopefully we’ll win. I don't really care if we win though, so long as we don't lose on a technicality.
It's not even so much the jersey as it is getting people to realize that we are doing this for a fun event, for people that aren't able to ride, that aren't able to do the things we are able to do. Hopefully that gets people to notice, and donate money.
That's what the whole cause is for, to get people to donate money to help people do what they couldn’t before. The MS society uses 84 percent of their funds toward research and things to help people with MS. 16 percent of it is administrative cost. You know, paying the people that man the office like the one here on Foothill. That's really what I want to do, to help more people. Instead of donating $5 like last year, donate $10. Every little bit helps. The jersey is a really fun part of that. Long story short, I'm looking forward to winning.
AH: Anything else you’d like to say?
AY: I have a quote by my hero, Muhammad Ali. Someone asked him in an interview how he felt about training and he said, “I hate every minute of my training. But don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." I use that as a personal model for my life. Particularly with my challenge with MS, it's training for life. But events like the MS 150, that's when I can be a champion. I get to show off my training, and at the end of the day I want to raise my fist and think I’m the champion of the world.. Or whatever Ali says. I use that quote as a way of sustaining myself, to show everyone that I beat y’all. End of discussion, see ya next year.
AH: I’m rooting for you. Thanks for your time, your insight is incredible.
AY: Thank you for having me.