Paralympian 'shifting narrative' about people with disabilities

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POCATELLO — John Register read a newspaper, wearing shorts that revealed his prosthetic limb, while he waited for his flight in a San Francisco airport on Oct. 30, 2000.

Two little boys, amazed by his metal left leg, directed their mother's attention to Register, shouting, "Mommy, Mommy, there goes the robot man!"

Register took no offense; rather he seized an opportunity to enlighten the children with his personal story of perseverance and grit.

On Friday morning, the Paralympic silver medalist shared the same story with a crowd that included several Olympians. He was the keynote speaker at Breakfast with Fosbury and Friends, hosted at the Idaho State University Pond Student Union Building in conjunction with the annual Simplot Games track meet.

Register recalls he suppressed a laugh about the boys' "robot" observation. But he was annoyed by whispered hisses throughout the airport gate, calling the children impolite and questioning the example set by their mother. A moment later, the mother introduced her children to Register, and told him, "It looks like you've overcome so much adversity. You're an inspiration."

Register pondered her statement about overcoming adversity. He told the family how his personal journal involved first accepting his "new normal" after losing his leg. Once he was right in his own mind, he set to work on "shifting the narrative," urging others to celebrate the abilities of those with disabilities.

Six and a half years prior to his encounter with the boys and their mom, Register was one of the fastest hurdlers alive, training on a track in Wichita, Kansas. He was a four-time track and field all-American from University of Arkansas. He was champion in the collegiate division of the 5,500 meter high hurdles. He was also a two-time Olympic trials qualifier and a Gulf War Army veteran.

Sprinting into the Kansas wind, he came up short on one of the hurdles. He heard a smack. He saw his left leg pass before his face.

"My patella tendon had risen 3 inches up my femur bone," Register said.

The doctor at the hospital gave him a choice: He could keep the leg and rely on a walker or wheelchair for the rest of his life, or he could have the leg amputated at the knee.

He found himself alone in a hospital bed with one less limb and dark thoughts: "Is my wife going to stick around? Will my son still see me as his father? Will I still have a job in the Army? Will I be able to support my family? My Olympic dreams are over!"

His wife's assurances put a floor beneath his downward spiral: "You know John, we're going to get through this together. It's just our new normal."

Register took to swimming as part of his rehabilitation. At a swimming complex one day, he watched a broadcast of an amputee competing in long jump. At the apex of the athlete's leap, his leg flew off and landed in the sand.

The athlete turned to the referee and demanded, "Now where are you going to measure my jump from?"

It was a lite-hearted but life-changing moment for Register; he realized then he needed to get out of the pool and back into track and field.

He soon found himself in an airport with his new track team. But he was taken aback when the airline announced they'd take passengers in need of special assistance, and about 60 of his teammates stood up.

"All I see are people with disabilities because I want to be on the Olympic team, not the Paralympic team, and as I'm sitting there watching these individuals, I'm like, 'Those people have blindness, palsy, they're in wheelchairs, they're amputees'," Register said. "What's the value? What's the benefit of being on this team?"

As soon as he boarded the plane, however, he began to see his teammates in a new light. A double-amputee nicknamed Tree, who stood 6-foot-8 while wearing his prosthetics, had the stewardess place his artificial legs in the overhead compartment. He waited a moment for her to walk away.

"Tree now jumps into his seat, hoists himself into the overhead compartment and lays prone next to his legs. He closed the bin!" Register said.

Another passenger Register referred to as Mr. Armani Suit opened the bin and jumped rows back when "out popped Tree."

"It looked like I was going to have a lot more fun on the Paralympic team," Register said.

It dawned on Register that wasn't enough for him to merely "tolerate and accept" his teammates.

"I looked at that from the standpoint of how I was actually valuing individuals with disabilities in my own mindset from who I showed up as," Register said. "What I was doing in tolerating my teammates does not equal value and appreciation."

Register finally got his medal — a silver in long jump — at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. A reporter would later ask him if he thought he would ever compete again with the likes of Olympic legends Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, given the strides being made in prosthetics technology.

"I said, 'No, I can't. However, you're question should be if, God forbid, Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson lost a limb, could they run as fast or jump as far as I do?'" Register said.

When he finished his story that day at the San Francisco airport, he happened to have his silver medal in his pocket. He briefly let both boys wear the medal, and he still thinks back on the courage of a mother who taught her boys to value and appreciate people with disabilities.

In his bid to change the narrative, Register often speaks publicly. He has appeared on several TV shows and he has advised three U.S. secretaries of state. He also founded the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Sports Program to help wounded service members use sport as a tool in their rehabilitation.

He seeks to motivate others to "hurdle adversity" in an uncertain world.

"You never know what life's overhead bin has in store for you," Register said.

The 42nd Simplot Games were hosted from Thursday through Friday at Holt Arena, drawing top high school track athletes from throughout the world.

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