John Register: Sports and Kids Are His Life

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By O&P EDGE Editorial Staff

John Register has loved sports most of his life. Growing up in Oakbrook, Illinois, on the west side of Chicago, his favorite sport was baseball. During his freshman year in high school, he faced his first athletic setback: the baseball coach told him the team was chosen--and he wasn't on it. As it turned out, it was baseball's loss and track and field's gain when John made the varsity track team.

Register went on to a stellar career at the University of Arkansas on a half track-and-field and half music scholarship. After graduating in 1988 with a degree in communications, he joined the army to focus on track and field and have a shot at the Olympics. With an interruption while he served in the Gulf War, Register participated in the army's World Class Athletes (WCA) program.

Injury Changes Life

Then his life suddenly changed. Preparing for a track meet to be held the next day, he ran a heat of hurdles and landed badly on a leg, severing the popliteal artery. The injury cut off circulation in the leg, eventually leading to gangrene and amputation.

The grief for the loss struck John, as it does so many amputees. "Who am I now?" he wondered. A turning point was reached. His wife had just wheeled him outside to the playground where his son was playing. He broke down in grief. His wife told him, "We're going to get through this together." Says John, "This was a defining moment for me. I was still a husband to my wife, a father to my son, a son to my father. I realized that it was my attitude that would pull me through."

After physical therapy in San Antonio, Texas, Register retired from the army, and was hired back as a civilian sports specialist with the WCA program. "This is where I learned the management of sports programs and about the various sports," he says. Register also became familiar with disabled sports organizations such as Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA) and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). He participated in the 1996 Paralympics as a swimmer.

Paradigm Shifts

Says John, "I had two paradigm shifts at this point in my life, learning what was possible from people with disabilities and how our personal attitude about things affects outcomes." The first shift came from Gong Baoren of the People's Republic of China. Remembers John, "He was an armless swimmer who used his head on the turnarounds to push off the wall. He had finished far ahead of the heat, and the rules say you must maintain your lane while the rest of the heat finishes the race. His legs began to cramp, and since he doesn't have any arms, he couldn't stay above the water and kept going under. One of the judges had to hold him up while the heat finished. I remember the crowd making this sound doing head knocking in support of Gong. He was awesome! Here this world-record swimmer sacrificed so much of himself to win a gold medal and achieve his goal."

John feels there is a metaphor for everyone in this story: We can set a standard by which we can measure ourselves in any aspect of life. "We give to the degree that we are satisfied with what we achieved."

The second shift came from John Landis in the long jump. "He was an above-knee amputee like me," Register explains. "He jumped, and his prosthesis came flying off and landed in the sand ahead of him. The crowd went wild! He looked at the judge and asked, Where will we measure from? Here where I am or up there where my leg is?' Everyone laughed. From this experience, a seed was planted. If he can do this and find the humor in moments like that, then I can do this."

Register then entered track and field events again and became involved in DS/USA and Ohio Willow Wood, Mt. Sterling, Ohio. "I was recruited to test products when the Pathfinder" was under development," remembers John. "This gave me a whole new perspective on the O&P industry and product development. The difference between OWW and the other companies was that OWW accepted me into their family, recognizing and accepting that their product was not good for my track and field events. To them, it didn't matter. What mattered was my successful rehabilitation, which came through sports. This is very much the same way I approach my work in the Paralympic Academy today."

Register's athletic career continued to soar: in 1999, he held the American record in the long jump; in 2000, he won a silver medal in the Sydney, Australia, Paralympics, just 4.5 inches shy of the gold.

Disabled Sports Funding: A Gap

"Our government spends $6 billion dollars on rehabilitation, while on sports programs for the disabled we spend only $5 million, a huge discrepancy," Register points out. "We see what Paralympic sports can do for the disabled. We--our country--seems to want the disabled to stay home--not get out and live and be productive members of society and taxpayers. Our perceptions and stereotypes serve to keep people in boxes where we expect them to stay."

Disabled Sports Changes Perceptions

Register then became manager of the Paralympic Academy, a network of state initiatives across the nation. "I make calls to establish networks among organizations, trying to bring them to the same table. We need to pool our resources to make a stronger voice, then take those numbers to Congress, and show them that a child that has come to the Paralympic Academy has made his state team, and then his national team, and then the Paralympic team." And these disabled persons often obtain productive jobs, Register points out. Register sees a need to "prove we need to increase funding for disabled sports programs because it impacts the disabled--because it shows them what is possible."

Disabled sports make a positive impact on the public's perception of disability. Register remembers talking to a woman stationed at the VIP area gate at the Paralympics in Athens. "She commented on how having the Games in Greece changed the perception and attitudes of the Greeks about people with disabilities. Apparently, the disabled there never go outside; there aren't many accommodations for the disabled; most handicapped parking signs are ignored; and when there are curb cutouts, most people park in front of them, because their perception is that the disabled don't come out. It's a different mentality.

"You could see the growth of the cause daily, though, in Greece, as more and more people came to marvel at the abilities of the athletes as news spread by word of mouth and the newspapers and other media," Register continues. "School children came in droves."

Can US Improve?

"The US is still the most advanced country in accepting disabilities," Register says. However, the US could improve, he asserts. "We don't educate enough on disability. Rather than keep kids in PE class, teachers send them to the computer lab and they get no exercise. Why not put wheelchairs in the schools and have a couple days a week that everyone plays wheelchair basketball or soccer so all the kids can learn? Include the disabled child and let him shine for a moment. What comes from this experience is that kids, a school, a nation, can witness that I can follow the leadership of a person even though he/she doesn't look like me or walk like me.' It opens up the mindset."

Register also advises disabled persons: "Get involved; don't just seek out organizations that are for physical disabilities; seek out organizations that have what you want to do. Don't limit yourself. If you want to participate in PE class--go with an advocate and participate. Make the educators think outside the box on how they can include you in each activity."

O&P Can Make an Impact

Register also encourages the O&P industry to help: "Find out who your state agencies are that are associated with the Paralympic Academy. For those states that don't have one yet, please contact me so we can work to establish and include your state in the network." Register has a lofty goal: he wants to build quality programs in all 50 states, "so when a kid or parent visits the Paralympic Academy website , they have a point of contact for their state where programs exist and/or they can establish programs with schools and hospitals in local areas."