John Register knows first-hand how changing your mindset can change your life. After a devastating and career-ending injury, Register underwent a life-altering transition — from Olympic hopeful and Army Officer Candidate one day, to an amputee the next.
Nevertheless, he overcame tough obstacles and hurdled adversity. Just four years later, after re-learning how to run on a prosthesis, Register won the Paralympic silver medal in long jump in Sydney, Australia.
We spoke with Register to hear how he credits his success to his inherent sense of resiliency.
1. Following your injury, how did you hurdle adversity to adjust to your new normal?
I was really in a bad state. Though I knew things would eventually work out, for a moment, I went into a depression. I began to think, “Who am I now? What's my identity? What’s going to happen with my family? My job? Can I still support my family?” And, “My Olympic dreams are over!”
With my new amputated leg and a wheelchair, my wife Alice and my son wheeled me out to an inaccessible playground. As they were swinging on the swings, I was unable to push myself out of that chair. That's when I lost it. I began crying uncontrollably.
Alice saw me struggling and she came running over to me. She wrapped her arms around me and asked me what was wrong. I told her all my fears from the night before.
Then she said the words that stopped my downward spiral in my depression.
She said, “We're going to get through this together. It's just our new normal.”
From there, adjusting to the “new normal” was easy. The word “new” means “no prior point of reference.” And “normal” means “an everyday typical occurrence of something.” So, every day I resolved in myself to be better today than I was yesterday — to try something new that I had not tried before. And little by little, I began to gain more confidence. I swam for physical therapy and wound up making the Paralympic swimming team. Go figure.
2. Tell us about the USOC Paralympic Military Program you helped create as part of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The United States Paralympic military program began with very humble beginnings in 2004, with the first casualties coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. During my recovery at Brooklyn Medical Center, I didn't have a lot of people checking on me. It felt as if I was a forgotten soldier. At the recommendation of a physical therapist, I used sport as a tool for my rehabilitation.
When the opportunity arose to begin the Paralympic military support program, it was underneath the auspices of using sport as a tool for rehabilitation for the service members, to get back to a healthy and active lifestyle.
Early in 2004, we started with a very small basketball clinic. We invited the players from Georgetown University and the soldiers who were on Ward 22 in Walter Reed army hospital. Wheelchairs were provided, to have some friendly competition.
Its popularity went through the roof! We did two more clinics that year: a wheelchair fencing clinic and another basketball clinic, and added wheelchair rugby. The latter program came just before the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Due to the rapid expansion of the program, I went to the United States Congress and secured funding for the additional chapters. Eventually, this led to the Warrior Games, and then to Prince Harry’s Invictus Games.
The outcomes of the program are still being realized today. There have been multiple soldiers on Paralympic teams, and they’ve gotten back into healthy and active lifestyles with their families. They have normalized back into society again — if there is such a thing.
The program has inspired other countries to be involved in the welfare of people with disabilities, even beyond just those in military service. I am humbled to have been a part of that process.
3. What advice do you give others about creating the right mindset when facing life’s adversity and obstacles?
I believe that we need to surround ourselves with people who will not allow us to fail.
All of us will face something that is a challenge in our life. We think we know how we will handle a situation once an obstacle or challenge pops up. But often, we really don’t know what to do.
Inside of this “test period,” we learn our true identity and our true character. It is then we understand who we are. The question I ask you to consider is, “Who is in your life that you can call upon when you’re in trouble?”
Secondly, I believe we have to monitor what we are feeding our minds. If we're listening to things that are more negative, it is more likely we’ll have a negative viewpoint of life.
When was the last time you listened to the news? How many positive stories did you hear during the broadcast? Probably not many.
Once we allow negativity to take root in our minds, we began to speak those words and reflect it out into the world. Those words become our actions, those actions become habits, those habits become our character. The reason I started “Life’s New Normal Podcast” was to be an antithesis to the negativity that seems to be all around us.
Finally, remember that adversity can be seen in two ways. It can be a detriment and an obstacle. Or, it can be liberating and an opportunity. It is our mindset which determines the way we see it.
When I coach hurdlers and track and field, I no longer called them hurdles. They’re now called “opportunities.” Referring to them in this way removes their fear of running over the hurdles.
So when I have new hurdles, I tell them, “Today, we have ten opportunities ahead of us.”
Looking for an inspirational perspective on hurdling adversity? Connect directly with John Register here to start a conversation.
Megan Boley was a content marketing writer at WSB. When she’s not wordsmithing, she can be found with her nose in a book or planning her next adventure.