On May 17, 1994, John Register was training in Hays, Kansas to try out for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team for track and field.
“At about 5:29 in the afternoon, I was a combat veteran, a track and field All American at Arkansas, a nine-time gold medal winner at the Armed Forces Competition, had been to the World Military Championships a couple of times,” Register recalls. “I was the eighth-fastest 400 meter hurdler at the time, top 20 in the world, and U.S. News [& World Report] had just released [a story] that said I was one to watch to make the 1996 Olympic team.
“At 5:30 that afternoon, I would never run another hurdle in my life.”
Register misstepped a hurdle, landed awkwardly and hyperextended his left knee disrupting the popliteal artery behind the knee.
“Seven days later, because of poor circulation, the doctor gave me a choice to keep the limb and use a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of my life, or undergo an amputation and use a prosthetic for the rest of my life.” he said. “It was really, in my mind, the pain [that] spoke first. We have these choices that we have to make in life. What I say now is when our truth outweighs our fear, we commit to a courageous life.
“The truth of that moment in my life was that I was in so much pain, I thought if I got rid of the leg, I would get rid of the pain. The reality was, after I made the decision to amputate the leg and I woke up from the surgery, I was in more pain than I thought.”
Track was in his blood. Register competed at the University of Arkansas where he earned his degree in communications, then enlisted in the Army and joined the U.S. Olympic team’s military unit whose mission is to support nationally- and internationally-ranked soldiers with the goal of selection to the U.S. Olympic team.
Register was in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program at the time of his life-changing injury.
“I went out doing what I love doing. I would’ve been [angrier] if I had been injured in combat because then I didn’t get my chance to come back and try to realize my dreams,” he said. “I was angry with myself for not being more cautious in my training. Maybe I could’ve bailed around the hurdle or something that would’ve prevented the accident in the first place.”
But over time he developed a new mindset, and eventually worked his way back to the track.
Register spoke with the Business Journal about his life philosophy in the wake of his injury, his journey to the U.S. Paralympic team, and his career in public speaking.
Why did you enlist in the Army?
There were two main reasons. I wanted to continue to run track and field. I spent a lot of time my senior year … putting all of my effort towards graduating — so my senior year, my track and field took a little bit of a hit. … I didn’t do great in the Olympic trials, even though I qualified for them. As I was trying to figure out what to do next, I decided to join the Army because of the World Class Athlete Program. You can’t enlist for it. … You had to get into the Army first and then make your way to it. I figured with making the Olympic trials, I was fast enough to be accepted into the program.
The second reason was, my girlfriend at the time, Alice, and I were expecting our first child and I was trying to figure out how to pay for my kid. The military would [help me] do that. Alice and I were married, and they were really the ones that helped us fund the beginning of our lives. We didn’t know at the time, but now we have a strong affinity for the military. I always say you’re either running from something or running to something when you join the military. I joined in those two capacities: World Class Athlete Program, and because I was a young father and needed to support my family. I had another job offer, but it was not going to satisfy my desire to run track. Because of my degree in communications, I had an offer at a television station in Mississippi, so I would’ve been able to start a family — but I would not have been able to run track.
Tell us about your recovery.
There is this whole metaphor of healing that I sometimes talk about in my presentations. I would always talk about healing scars on the outside, but scars have to heal on the inside too. [After my injury] I struggled with my identity. Many people are experiencing this too. There might be a transition that you’re making in life and you don’t know what lies on the other side, but you have to have the truth to outweigh your fear; the courage to make the jump — even though you don’t know how it might turn out on the other side. That’s where I was at.
It was my wife [who I worried about] when I was struggling in these moments and trying to identify who I am now and what’s my identity — because I’m obviously not going to the Olympic games. Is she going to stay with me? I’ve seen so many spouses break up in the military because of PTSD and the hard deployments. That’s in my head. Is that really my fear? Or is my fear asking myself the question: ‘If she doesn’t stay with me, am I still valuable, desirable? Will someone still want me? What if they don’t? Do I lose my sense of belonging?’ That was my fear. I find that people don’t articulate their fears to that degree.
We usually are beholden to other people’s opinions of us — of what other people think is possible for us. … My wife, in that moment, said, ‘You know, John, we’re going to get through this together. This is just our new normal.’ That became the framework for a new rallying cry for me. I quickly understood that the new normal is not a destination. We don’t arrive at a new normal because normal is not really there. … The new normal is a plateau by which we grow. Every day, we get a new reset. Every day we can do a little bit more and do better than we did the day before.
How did you return to the track?
It took about two, two and a half years before I decided I was going to run again. I didn’t know you could run on an artificial leg. I swam for physical therapy and poured all of my effort into that. I heard about the Paralympic Games … and put a mark on the wall to try to make the Paralympic swim trials. I never thought I’d make the team, but it gave me a course to set. I wound up making the Paralympic swim trials. I left the trials before the team was announced and got back to Virginia where I was working for the World Class Athlete Program. ... I got a call saying I left too early because the team was already announced — and I had made the team.
They picked me up for the relay team and told me I was going to Atlanta. It was a shock. [In 1996,] I went to Atlanta with the swim team and that is where I first saw athletes running on artificial legs. I knew immediately what the next jump would be. My wife and I were watching television and we saw this guy on the long jump runway [with an artificial leg]. She immediately looked in my eyes and knew I was no longer in Atlanta — I was in Sydney, Australia. I was going to figure out how to run, jump and win at the Paralympic Games in four years. I still had races to do in the pool in Atlanta, but I was already in Sydney. Two years after my first run with an artificial leg, I earned the Silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympic Games. I also set the American long jump record and finished in fifth place in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
How did you start your work with the United States Olympic Committee and Paralympic Military Program?
I ended my [military] service in 2003 and started working for the United States Olympic Committee. That’s when I came out to Colorado Springs. That is when the [second Iraq] war started. ... The first casualties are coming back in September and October of 2003 and I started the first iteration of the Paralympic Military Program using all of the tools and resources that I had from those 10 years I built up in the Army, and those relationships I built. ...
How did you become a professional speaker?
One of the managerial responsibilities I had when I was working for WCAP after my injury — between 1994 and 1997 — was to perform Total Army Involvement in Recruiting missions. I would be out there with my artificial leg talking to these high school kids and the principals kept calling me back or calling the recruiters saying, ‘Hey, who was that one-legged guy that came down here? Because the kids are still talking about him.’ The recruiters always wanted to get back into the schools, so they called me up and said, ‘Hey, the kids are talking about you. Can you come down here and put a presentation together for them, so we can go back to the school?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure’ and they said, ‘OK, well how much do you charge for that?’ I told them I would get back to them because I didn’t know you got paid for that. That began my professional speaking career.... It didn’t turn serious until 2012. I was working with athletes to help them tell their journey stories and as I’m doing all these other programs, [my business,] Inspired Communications International, is building to where I’m getting messages about helping people hurdle their adversity or amputate their fear and embrace a new normal mindset.
That’s what I now do. I started to get really good at speaking and articulating an idea and challenging concepts and the status quo. In 2007, I do five presentations at Loughborough University [in the United Kingdom] to share what I had been doing with the Paralympic Military Program and how I built it and what our philosophy was behind it. That got wind from the British to Prince Harry. He came over in 2013 to look at our program that had now gone from camps and clinics to Warrior Games, which grew out of my program, and eventually started Invictus Games. That’s kind of this whole, at least on the military side, of what I was doing. I walk through the Paralympic Museum now and it’s like ‘Holy cow!’ to see it right in front of your eyes. I’ll ask myself, ‘Was the injury to do all of this? Was that what it was for?’