When you meet David Michael, you automatically notice his hair. How can you not?
It’s a spiky mohawk that’s dyed the colors of the rainbow. The style, which he started sporting months ago, and the matching rainbow tutus he wears when running, biking or competing in races along the East Coast, are designed to draw attention to his Dream in Color Foundation.
Spurred by the deaths of people close to him, he participated for years in events that benefit cancer and AIDS organizations. But he wanted to know how patients would directly benefit from his contributions.
After one of his dearest friends died in 2013, he knew it was time to put a long-simmering idea into motion. He created the nonprofit to help families chosen by him – those who might need money for treatment, to cover lost wages or, in one case, for funeral expenses.
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This year, the Garner resident has kicked the foundation into high gear. His 2016 calendar is filled with 23 duathlons, triathlons, half-Ironman triathlons, half-marathons and the big doozy in the fall, an Ironman. He’ll do two events this weekend, including Saturday’s half-marathon and Sunday’s half-Ironman in Raleigh.
He estimates he will train 1,000 hours and swim, bike and run several thousand miles. All he asks is for supporters to pick one of the events and donate $1 per mile.
It sounds exhausting, but Michael, whose Olympic dreams were crushed years ago by an injury, said they give his life renewed purpose.
This year, he has picked two area families to benefit from his efforts. One woman has breast cancer. Another family has two members with cancer. Neither knows he has raised $2,400 for them in the events he’s done so far this year, with many more miles to go. On June 12, a cut-a-thon will be held at Salons by JC in Cary, where he is a hairstylist, with proceeds from cuts, manicures and other services going to the families.
I’m just a portal for all this. It’s my way of being able to give back.
“I’m just a portal for all this,” he said. “It’s my way of being able to give back.”
After you’ve moved past Michael’s appearance, you immediately notice his infectious, upbeat personality. His passion for helping others and his openness are evident. In just a few minutes of conversation, we learned that we graduated from the same high school in suburban Maryland and shared some teachers, including a math teacher, who coincidentally just donated to the foundation.
But Michael, 48, is honest about the darkness he experienced when he was younger. He was athletic at a young age – and fast. He placed at state cross-country meets in high school and was poised to run for the University of Maryland at Baltimore in 1986. His goal was to make the Olympics. An injury to one of his feet, weeks before college began, put a stop to his running career.
He sank into depression. He left college and started working at a well-known D.C. nightclub. He also struggled with his sexual identity, made more complicated because he didn’t have any public gay role models to turn to. He gained weight and acknowledges he made some wrong decisions.
There was a bright spot, though. He met Marlin Sipes at the nightclub, a man who brought joy to those around him. “Everything Marlin did, he did with a smile on his face,” Michael said. “He was the light of the party.”
After Sipes contracted HIV, he moved in with Michael. Michael cared for him as long as he could. It was the mid-90s, the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the treatment was expensive. At the same time, Michael knew he no longer could maintain the late nights and lifestyle found at the club.
“I made the decision: Enough. You’ve got to stop this. You’ve got to find your life again,” he told himself.
He decided to move to Raleigh for a fresh start. A few months later, Sipes died at age 27.
Michael, then 27, started to think how he could honor his friend. Creating a foundation was daunting, though, and a former DJ-turned-hairstylist wouldn’t make much money. He set about working on himself.
In Raleigh, he met Carlton Landrum, a fellow hairdresser. The two hit it off, and Landrum helped Michael rediscover his athletic side.
“Carlton and I were almost like two peas in a pod, two Forrest Gumps running around the planet together,” Michael recalls. “He taught me to stop and smell the flowers.”
They eventually broke up after four years. Several years went by without contact, until they reconnected on Facebook in 2012.
Landrum told Michael he had colon cancer, but didn’t reveal its severity. Michael was stunned when the man who had helped him regain his sense of self died a few months later in February 2013. He was 48.
“I thought the purpose of life was to give back as much as you can and be joyful and spread the joy, so people will grow from that,” he said to God at the funeral.
“I couldn’t understand why he’d take such a great soul like that off the planet.”
At Landrum’s service, Michael rubbed the ring he received in 2011 when he was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at our high school. It reminded him of Landrum, and how far he had come. He also heard a voice telling him to find a purpose for his athletic gifts.
The next day, as Michael pedaled away on an indoor bicycle, a plan to create the foundation poured out of him. He furiously tapped out his ideas on his iPad. Choosing the name was easy. “Dream in Color,” a song by Regina Belle, was Landrum’s favorite.
“It was amazing; it was like someone was channeling through me,” he said.
Always on his mind
After Dream in Color incorporated in late 2013, Michael started small, helping the family of a former colleague get funds for a funeral after she succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He has secured sponsors and emphasizes that he pays for all of his registration, training and travel expenses on his own.
He has been overwhelmed by the support he has received. Much of the pressure he sometimes feels comes from himself – to raise more money, to get better race results.
“It shocked me, the attention,” he said. “I wanted to represent everybody, their money and their souls and spirits and the friends they’ve lost.”
That attitude is fitting of his personality and has inspired those who work with him, said Jackie Cox, who owns Salons by JC with her husband, Eugene. She said the connection she felt with Michael upon meeting him made her want to help his organization.
He has a heart of gold. He wears his heart on his sleeve.
Jackie Cox, talking about David Michael
“He has a heart of gold,” Cox said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, but he hurts with the families.”
This year, while his goals have gotten even bigger, he has allowed himself some perspective. He’s still competitive and has qualified to compete three times at the ITU Duathlon World Championships, the closest he has been to international competition since his high school days.
But he makes sure to keep the families at the forefront of his focus, and the race results less.
When he runs, he rubs the Hall of Fame ring. He recently tattooed lyrics from the Whitney Houston song “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” on the inside of each arm. The left arm says, “I was not built to break.” The right one has the words, “I got to know my own strength.” Together, the ring and the words ground him while his outside appearance – the tutu and the mohawk – grab attention.
When he crosses the finish line, he immediately wishes his departed friends were still alive to be there.
“I think about, I can take these steps,” he said. “They cannot. That’s kind of why I chose so many races.
“They say to walk a thousand miles in someone else’s shoes. I figured, walk, run and bike a thousand.”
For more on the Dream in Color Foundation, go to www.dreamincolorfoundationinc.org.
A cut-a-thon to raise money for families with cancer is 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, June 12, at Salons by JC, 2476 Walnut St., Cary. Services will include haircuts, children’s cuts, manicures, massages and facials. No appointment is required. There also will be a silent auction, raffles and baked goods. Checks and cash are preferred. The event is sponsored by the Dream in Color Foundation, which will donate all proceeds to two area families affected by cancer. 919-816-2290, salonsbyjc.com