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DOWNEY - Michael Johnson was on top of the world. At age 12, he had already won 14 national motorcycle racing titles. He was a young man with an unlimited future.
Then on August 13, 2005, while racing in the first heat race of the day at a half-mile dirt track in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, Michael was entering a turn at nearly 150 miles per hour when he hit a soft spot in the track and gravel flew up and obscured his view.
A moment later, his motorcycle slammed into a wood post at nearly 90 miles per hour. The handlebars pounded his body with such tremendous force that it broke his back and collarbone, several ribs, his ankle and tibia. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
When he awakened, Michael was told he would never walk again and that his dream of driving professionally was over. But the determined 12-year-old boy did not give up. "I will race again," he told his parents.
Back home in Mount Morris, a small town of just 3,000 residents near Flint, Michigan, Michael slowly recovered from his massive injuries. He also had to overcome a life-threatening pressure ulcer he sustained after being immobilized on a backboard while being transported home from Toronto.
"My rehab was very challenging and very painful," Michael said. "But I had a goal to race again, and nothing was going to stop me.
"I would set a goal for a small improvement." he said. "When I reached that goal, I would set another, and then another. Every week I was getting closer to my ultimate goal, and I felt my spirit soar as my dream of racing again began coming into focus."
Sixteen months after his accident, Michael was celebrating a white Christmas 2006 at home with his family when his parents surprised him with a customized Go-Kart equipped with hand controls.
A short time later, Michael was back on the track. He was the only driver on the course controlling his Go-Kart with only his hands, yet he was often the fastest racer. He raced Go-Karts in 2007, 2008 and 2009, winning the championship in his final year. Then he decided to step up to cars.
"I went to the Skip Barber racing school and was able to be competitive racing Formula cars with hand controls," Michael said. He got faster each year, and in 2011 he had 13 top-ten finishes and climbed to third in the Skip Barber National Series standings. He was ready for the IndyCar circuit.
This year, Michael became the first paralyzed driver to race in the USF2000 National Championship, the first step on the Mazda Road to Indy that has developed two Indianapolis 500 winners in the last decade. "It was a huge difference," he said, "like going from driving a Civic to driving a Shelby Boss Mustang." Michael finished 15th in the USF2000 standings this year. His goal next year is to be in the top five.
Michael's car has a paddle on the left side of the wheel to control the throttle, which is situated alongside a lever for the clutch. His gearshift is on the right-hand side, and to brake he pushes in on the steering wheel.
"Racing motorcycles helped me prepare for racing with hand controls, because most of what you use to control the bike is on the handlebars," Michael said. "It takes much more strength to drive an IndyCar. I prepare by doing three-hour physical therapy sessions each week, and I also work out three days a week with my strength trainer."
Last week, Michael and his #54 IndyCar went from the "Mazda Road to Indy" to the "Road to Rancho" and arrived at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. His goal was to meet with patients and staff and provide a real-world example of what can be accomplished after sustaining a disabling injury or illness.
Michael met with inpatients in their hospital rooms for more than three hours Thursday and Friday, accompanied by Rancho patient and Performing Arts of Rancho director Jay Cramer. Michael delivered kind words of encouragement and a million-dollar smile for each of the patients he met.
Then it was out to the Jacquelin Perry Institute backlot for three more hours of speaking with Rancho patients and staff beside his spectacular blue IndyCar. The car was very impressive, but not as impressive as Michael.
"He told me that if he could do it, I could do it too," said 27-year-old Rancho inpatient Brandon Allen, who sustained a major spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident on January 13, 2012. Before his accident, Brandon's passion was to race his 1967 Chevy Nova dragster. "Michael gave me hope that when I set challenging goals and work very hard, I will be able achieve them. I believe that just like him, someday I will drive again."
Brandon was one of more than 700 Rancho patients and staff who braved nearly 100-degree temperatures to attend the special event, which was presented by the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation. Michael's appearance was underwritten by Coloplast, the primary sponsor of Michael's #54 car and maker of the SpeediCath® catheter and many other advanced medical devices.
Unlike when he drives his car from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds, Michael took his time with each patient, instilling his special brand of inspiration.
"I am here to support each person at the current moment, but I am also here to help them think about the importance of always having a goal," he said. "I tell everyone to never give up, because if you give up, everything you have worked for will be gone.
"Like me, a lot of these individuals' lives changed in an instant," Michael said. "I explain that it only took a split second for my life to be shattered, and it has taken me seven years to work my way back."
"What he has been able to do is so amazing," Rancho patient Raquel Yanez said. "I wouldn't believe it was possible if I hadn't seen him and his car with my own eyes. When I met him, he made me feel that I can do anything, too!"
While Michael was working with patients, the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the NASA 747 jetliner that carried it on its final flight did three flyovers of Downey. Michael's new goals are almost as lofty.
"My next major goal is to drive in the Long Beach Grand Prix Indy Lights race in 2014 or 2015," Michael said. As he rises up the IndyCar ladder, he will be the first paralyzed person to race at each level. Eventually, he will reach for the granddaddy of them all...the Indianapolis 500. He has plenty of time to reach the pinnacle, because he will be just 20 years old when he celebrates his birthday next Tuesday.
Michael's current car travels at more than 150 miles per hour down the straightaway, but when he gets to the Brickyard at Indianapolis, the cars will reach speeds of more than 250 miles per hour. In addition, the down force that holds his tiny car on the track will be significantly greater.
"I work out three times a week to strengthen my core so that I can be my best in the car," Michael said. "There's no power steering in an IndyCar, so it takes a lot of muscle and focus to get the car around the track. At the speeds I'm racing at, my timing has to be perfect."
This week, the patients were still talking about Michael and how impactful his visit was. Rancho clinicians report that patient after patient told them how much Michael had inspired them to realize every bit of their potential.
"He told my patients to take their lives day-by-day and to always live each day the very best they can, because he has learned that anything can happen," said Rancho Recreation Therapist Tiffany Yoshida. "You could see in their eyes that his message was going straight to their hearts."
And while Michael inspired so many people at Rancho, Rancho will also be inspiring Michael. He told Rancho CEO Jorge Orozco that in addition to logos such as SpeediCath® and Coloplast that he currently carries on his race car, that he will add a Rancho logo to his car for next year's racing season.
"I will race not just for myself, but for all the patients and staff I've met at Rancho," Michael said. "I came here thinking I was going to inspire them, but as I have felt their courage and their determination to rebuild their lives, I have been inspired as well. Rancho is an incredible place of hope and healing, and I will be proud to carry the spirit of Rancho with me wherever I go."
For further information, call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit rancho.org, facebook.com/rancholosamigosrehab or twitter.com/ranchorehab.
Published: September 27, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 24