COLORADO SPRINGS — We are one hundred days out now from the 2021 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, a do-over after the games were postponed last year due to the pandemic.
It's a time when we focus not only on the competition, but the story behind the athlete and we had the opportunity to catch up with former Paralympian, John Register, who lives in Colorado Springs, and has an amazing story of survival, perseverance, and fortitude, to tell.
Register was a world-class, soldier athlete, a member of the U.S. Army in the late 1980s, early 1990s, who had had tremendous success in track and field and competed three times to qualify for Olympic competition. In 1994, during an Olympic trial competition, his life changed in a split second. He was running the 400 meter high hurdles when he landed awkwardly, dislocated his left knee, and severed the artery behind his kneecap. Within a week, the worst possible thing happened to him, he had to have part of his leg, amputated.
He says he lost so much more than just a part of his leg that day, he lost his identity, his Olympic dream, self-doubt crept in. He began to question his place in the world, did he belong, am I still a father, a husband. It was then that his strong family unit really stepped up. He told us, "It was really my wife Alice who said to me, you know what, John, we're going to get through this together, this is just our new normal".
And that became his new rallying cry, but it was the start of a very difficult path to recovery, six long, physically and mentally tough years, literally learning how to walk and run again using a prosthetic leg. But his commitment to the Olympic mantra, "swifter, higher, stronger", meant something to him, which helped him, literally take life one day at a time, that was his new truth, and he says when truth outweighs fear, you commit to courageous acts, "That's the mindset and I took for this new normal mindset was to be elevated that we can have the greatest performance today, it's not a destination, it's a plateau by which we grow."
His will to push himself, to believe in himself, propelled him to become, now, an elite Paralympian. What started in the pool with rehab swimming, developed into competition, and he qualified for the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. And it was there when he saw other Paralympians using prosthetics to compete, that he knew he could get back into track and field. Once a competitor, always a competitor, and this man of tremendous courage and desire, made it happen.
By the 2000 summer games in Sydney, Australia, John was back in the game, competing in the long jump, the 100 and 200-yard dash. He wound up winning a silver medal in the long jump competition. But he told us that winning that medal was an accomplishment that symbolized so much more than victory in athletic competition. He says, "the journey to lose a limb and have an amputation and then get it all back again, means that that silver medal is worth its weight, it taught me, we earn what we earn, and we can go after what we desire in life at a very high level if we're only willing to commit to that vision and put the work and effort towards that vision."
And after his Olympic days, that mindset was exactly what inspired him to establish the Paralympic Military Sport Program at the USOPC in Colorado Springs, a program designed to inspire and rehabilitate other service members, in particular, struggling with the very same issues he did, finding a way to channel their talent, in a positive way, not just to compete in sport, but in life.
Register says, "The Paralympic Military Sport Program beget Warrior Games and it begets Prince Harry's Invictus Games and we began to see a global consortium now of individuals with disabilities really trying to open up access".
These days he also advocates for those who have lost limbs, during this Limb Loss and Limb Difference Awareness Month, trying to slow the isolation and loneliness, particularly during the pandemic, of individuals who need to know there is help available.
Register also keeps a very close eye on the upcoming summer games in Tokyo, and he is excited about the prospects for U.S. athletes, and having been in their shoes, he knows what it feels like to be so close now, especially after the games were postponed last year due to covid, so it's now five years of training for the athletes. He knows the emotions that it generates, and the pushback that comes from so many distractions, particularly during the pandemic, and the uncertainty that remains in the world. He told us athletes should be thinking, "I'm getting a little excited about it, but I know I still have to take care of business, I have to keep on doing the rituals that I 've put in place that developed into my rhythm, the rhythm that elevated me to my rise and the rise that will create the result that I desire, that I've been training for the past four years now."
As for his Olympic legacy, part of it is on display at the Olympic-Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs. The "artifact" as he calls it, his prosthetic leg he used to compete.
He calls it a symbol of his tenacity, perseverance, and grit, that you can overcome the greatest challenges, and do anything in life, a message he continues to preach as an author and motivational speaker.
And speaking of his legacy, he strapped that silver medal he won around his neck for us, saying it felt different so many years removed from that special day in Sydney, he said it felt like the weight of the 20 some odd years that it took to get to the medal stand, and everyone who supported him and it represents a way forward, "Yes, you have a lot of the medals, the gold, silver, and bronze, but you have a lot of other things that are here, too, of the journey that it takes to represent team USA".
John Register continues to focus on the here and now, the plight of the disabled in this country, using his platform now, to teach, educate, speak up and speak out, advocate for them, because he says as communities work to be more inclusive, that provides more opportunities for jobs and education for those who have lost limbs, or otherwise disabled.
And by all means, his message specifically for amputees is to make sure you find a support group, there is help, for service members in particular. Contact your local Veterans Administration office, or in Colorado Springs, a great resource for our many veterans and active duty service members, the Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center.