Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon Story: How Mike Zampella Kept Pushing in a World of Darkness
Welcome to Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon Story series. Let the stories of athletes that kept going inspire, move, and motivate you.
Written & Edited by Pavlína Marek
“JUST KEEP PUSHING:” HOW MIKE ZAMPELLA KEPT RUNNING IN A WORLD OF DARKNESS
Micheal Zampella has always loved sports. From soccer to hockey to judo to lacrosse, he knew he wanted to keep moving, no matter what. When retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease, started to take away his vision, he thought he was done for. However, Zampella refused to give up. Instead, he started running through the darkness, finding specs of light in that new and scary world.
SFM: Can you please introduce yourself?
MZ: My name is Micheal Zampella, I’m originally from Long Island, New York, and I’m currently training for the San Francisco Marathon. I’m partnered with Degree Deodorant and their great campaign, Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon Program, which I’m very excited to be a part of.
Growing Up in Sports
Sports have been Zampella’s passion his whole life. First, he watched sports on the TV with his father, then started playing soccer in kindergarten. Eventually, he took up hockey, then got into judo. When he was in fourth grade, he came across lacrosse which, eventually, became his main sport.
“Lacrosse was huge in Long Island in the ‘80s,” Zampella said. “I was lucky enough to make an all-star team in my elementary and junior high school years, grades five through eight. That’s when I went to a very athletic private high school.”
His whole athletic career was, however, accompanied by the knowledge that, eventually, the wheels were going to start falling off. When he was just eight years old, he got diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease.
“They told my mom, ‘we don’t know why it happens but at some point, he will go blind,’” Zampella said. “This is 1983. I’m in third grade. And I’m thinking, what’s that? What’s RP? There was no internet back then!”
At first, that reality was hard for Zampella to wrap his head around.
“I’m eight years old! I’m, like, this isn’t gonna happen to me,” he said.
The disease started to make itself known with night blindness. When Zampella played baseball with friends one night, he noticed he couldn’t see the ball. However, he was still able to play sports and loved gym classes at school.
“It didn’t really impact me athletically until ninth grade,” he said.
Zampella started noticing his vision loss after freshman year. He couldn’t catch the ball or pick it off the ground.
“I could tell I was in trouble as far as my performance goes,” he said.
Despite this, he kept playing and planning to play lacrosse at the college level. He held onto that goal until one fateful night in his Junior year.
“It was the night before the season started and I went to put my helmet on just to adjust it and make sure everything was fine. And I couldn’t see. It was all distorted,” he said.
In the world that started to slowly sink into darkness, it was clear as day; Zampella had to stop playing.
“That was really tough because from fourth grade on I always did really well,” he said. “I really wanted to get a scholarship to play lacrosse in college.”
Zampella ended up going to the same college as his brother who played lacrosse there. He wanted to be on the same team so he never told anyone about his eye disease and, for a little while, his wish was granted.
“In fall, I just happened to have a good season,” he said. “The vision was always an issue but I played well, made the team, and then, a couple of weeks into spring, here we go again. I couldn’t see the ball.”
Eventually, cataracts formed, and in the glare of the daylight, Zampella couldn’t see anything on the field.
“I had a tough year,” he said. “I played better in fifth grade than I did in college. That was very hard on me. I got through the year and that was it.”
He hung it up after that.
The Refusal to Give Up (or, Why Mike Was Chosen for Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon Program)
Although he couldn’t play sports anymore, Zampella knew he wanted to stay as close to that world as he could. This is one of the reasons he has been chosen for Degree’s Not Done Yet marathon program.
“Sports is my passion. I love sports,’ he said. “My brother always played sports, my dad was a PE teacher and played sports in college… sports just ran in my family. Sports were my life.”
To stay involved, Zampella became a manager for the men’s basketball team in his first year of college. His brother was a manager as well so, for a little while, they were a part of the team together, assisting the coaching staff and helping with the team’s day-to-day operations. For Zampella, it was an exciting experience.
“We were ranked number one in the country in basketball,” he said. “It was an awesome experience so I always joked around that it was the best-paid job I’ve ever had in my life.”
Traveling to all the different venues where the team played, going to national tournaments, and enjoying the media attention kept Zampella busy.
“Even though I couldn’t play, I kept in the game that way,” he said.
He started working as a PE teacher in 1997 to stay in the game even longer. He was given a few years to enjoy the job before reality started to catch up to him again; there was no way he’d be able to keep working as a PE teacher forever. He started to have a hard time interacting with the kids in the gym setting during activities.
“I knew my days as a PE teacher were coming to an end,” Zampella said.
While his vision got progressively worse, he went back to school, attending night classes after work to get his administration certification while he was still able to read and write. Then he found a new job at the school where he started his teaching career. He became an assistant principal in the New York City public school system.
“Due to my vision loss I retired in 2012,” he said. “I was around 37 years old and I thought, oh no, what am I gonna do now? That was tough. I lost my sight at such a young age and had to change my whole lifestyle.”
Staying in the Game
“I really wanted to stay active and busy, I just couldn’t stay home and do nothing,” said Zampella.
To do so, he applied and was elected to join a board of trustees at a charter school in New York and stayed there for two years. It helped him keep his mind strong, and stay active. When his term ended, “that’s when I really started to look into adaptive sports for the visually impaired and blind.”
From baseball to hockey and tennis, too, Zampella gave a shot to any adaptive sport that was available nearby. He ended up playing baseball for the Long Island team.
The ball emitted a beeping sound so the players knew where it was. Because there are different levels of visual impairment, everyone had to wear a blindfold to level out the playing field. Zampella still had light perception at that time; he could still tell between day and nighttime.
“To be completely in the dark, running to the bases was initially very scary,” he said. “I had to get used to it.”
Once he settled into the game, he got to travel with the team and play in tournaments. Although that was a “great experience” for Zampella, he eventually left baseball due to the high impact it had on his body and switched to golf, his “main hobby” as of now.
In adaptive golf, every visually impaired player has a coach. The rules aren’t changed but the coach lines the athlete up to the ball and tells them how far the hole is. The athlete then just hits away, relying on the information conveyed.
“Unfortunately, a lot of my shots end up in the woods, but I love it,” said Zampella. I love getting out there.”
He learned to recognize where the ball falls by the sound of it.
“By the sound the club makes when I strike the ball, I can tell if it was a good shot or if it ended up in the woods,” he said.
Running Through the Darkness
SFM: Despite your extensive history in sports, it seems you didn’t consider running competitively until quite recently. How did you eventually get into running?
MZ: Really, after I retired from work, I still went to the gym. My passion is fitness as well as sports, I want to stay fit. But I couldn’t run outside anymore. It was just too dangerous; I couldn’t see anything. So I got a treadmill and started putting in a lot of miles on it. Eventually, as I ran a lot, I did a race.
Because my cousin is in the Philly area, my first race was the Philadelphia Half Marathon. I trained for that and the training was crazy because I had a TV in the gym but I couldn’t really see it anymore. Mostly, I would listen to music but during my long training sessions, I would put on a movie that I’ve seen a million times so I knew what was going on in the movie. I knew exactly what was going on as I listened to it. I would go on for two hours, watching the movie by listening to it just to keep me sane.
I ran the Philly Half and I did okay so I thought I’d try doing the full marathon. I started training. About six weeks before the marathon, we had a bad storm in New York. My windows got filthy from all the debris the storm brought so I went to clean it off. I was on the top of the ladder but I couldn’t reach. I got on the highest step of the ladder, the one you’re not really supposed to step on, and the ladder fell over.
It was a six-foot ladder. I went down and crushed my knee. My ribs were bruised, too, but my knee was the most banged up. I couldn’t walk and I definitely couldn’t run so I stopped training. I’m so competitive by nature that at the last second, I still attempted to run the marathon but at mile eight or nine, my knee just gave out and I stopped.
It always bothered me that I stopped. When I joined the blind baseball league, it took a toll on my body so I didn’t really train after that. I’d run to keep the weight off but I didn’t really put in the work. Then covid came and everything was shut down so I rented out my house to give a little test run to Pennsylvania. While I had my apartment in King of Prussia, I reached out to the Pennsylvania State Commission of the Blind for mobility training. I was new around the area, I couldn’t see, I had to get in my training with my cane, and I had to learn how to get around a new area, learn the transportation systems like busses and trains.
I had to give a little background to them so I shared that I loved sports and the woman who was my contact asked if I was interested in running. Of course, I was! She told me they had a group called Achilles International. It’s a disabled running group. She took me to see the chapter leader and we mapped out the bus route and the walk through the Philly city center to the meeting spot.
I met with the lady and she told me that I could run with a guide outside. I thought it was great. I could be back outside, running! Someone is helping me, obviously, but it gets me back outside again.
Zampella was excited, to say the least. Things were finally turning up again and he was training for races once more. That’s when covid hit and stopped the world, Zampella’s running included, in its tracks. He moved back to Long Island, which meant leaving his running community behind. Achilles International had a New York chapter, however, it was nearly impossible for Zampella to get to the meeting spot in Central Park by himself.
“That was just too dangerous,” he said. “There was no way I could do that.”
He called the leader of the New York City chapter to find out if, perhaps, there was someone who could give him a ride or accompany him from Long Island. During that call, he learned that Achilles International was opening a Long Island chapter.
“Perfect!” Zampella said.
He became one of the original members of Long Island Achilles and started running races with them. He kept mostly to 5-kilometer races.
“I was always winning the races in my age group there,” he said. “So I kept it at that distance. I was doing well and it was fine.”
Eventually, Philadelphia, the place where Zampella’s running started, called his name. With a heavy heart, he sold his childhood home and came to Pennsylvania with the money. It was a hard move but he wanted to know if he’d like to live there long-time. If not, he’d just buy something back in Long Island. Then came the time to wait for the housing market to come down.
“And the market has not come down. I didn’t play that right!” Zampella said. “My goal, originally, was to stay here for three months. Meanwhile, it’s been almost a year now.”
Back with Philadelphia Achilles, Zampella ran and trained with them once again. Eventually, he entered the Broad Street Run. He did very well in the race but wanted to try something new.
“I need to stay motivated,” he said. “I find a challenge, I find something to do, and it gets me through the days and the weeks. I can’t just sit.”
For that reason, he was just getting into triathlons. He had registered for a triathlon camp in Wisconsin that was to take place in early August.
“I was going to get the lay of the land for the triathlon and start training,” he said.
That’s when he heard that a deodorant company, Degree Deodorant, was looking for people they could send to run a marathon under their Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon program. He filled out the application, went through several rounds, and, eventually, was chosen to represent the company.
“And here I am,” he said. “I’m putting that triathlon on the back burner for a time. There’s no way I’d be recovering enough for that.”
To Keep Moving
SFM: Are you excited to run the San Francisco Marathon?
MZ: As you know, San Fran is very hilly. It’s a really hard course and I’m up for the challenge. I get to enjoy it that way, even though I can’t see it.
SFM: As you said, you’re running the San Francisco Marathon as a part of Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon program, which means you’re going past the point where you had to stop before. What is your mindset going into this marathon, this challenge?
MZ: My mindset is to finish. That’s the short answer. There are other objectives but my main goal is to finish the marathon. I want to cross that finish line.
Within a race, the most I’ve ever run was 13.1 miles and in training, it was 20 miles. My knees are killing me, my hamstrings are sore, and my feet are killing me, but it’s a challenge and I never back down from a challenge.
It would be a huge sense of accomplishment to finish, but there’s one more thing. When I was diagnosed with RP, there was no internet. I knew of nobody else with the same condition. It’s such a rare eye disease but now, there’s some research. It’s still scary for people who have it at any age but especially as a child. So if someone who just got diagnosed with RP and is very scared and thinks their life is over can see me finish a marathon with advanced-stage RP,… that’s a good inspiration to them. So, obviously, I want to finish for myself, my own feeling of accomplishment, but there are other factors as well. There are other motivations. Passing my previous point of quitting will be great but If I don’t finish, I’ll be disappointed.
SFM: Speaking of motivating others, what would you say to those who might be struggling with a condition similar to yours?
MZ: It’s very scary getting diagnosed with this because you know what’s coming. But your life isn’t over. You just gotta do things in a different way. It’s very frustrating at times but just keep pushing. Don’t give up. It’s not that we can’t do things; we just have to do them in a different way.
Continue to prove people wrong. People who think that just because you have a disability you can’t do certain things; just continue to prove them wrong. You will have a bad day here and there but, just like with everything else, someway, somehow, you’ll get through that day and into the next one.
We’re excited to see Zampella take on and finish the San Francisco Marathon. You can come to help us cheer him and thousands of others in on July 24! Check SF Marathon Spectator Information
Editor’s note: some of the interview answers have been slightly edited or shortened for clarity.