From ANG Newspapers - May 10, 2002                                     

Amputee's long jump inspires
By Steve Herendeen

OAKLAND -- "Take it off."

The young man spoke the words with tears in his eyes, sweat on his brow and a click in his throat.

John Register had been given the choice -- be a former world class athlete relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, or grit his teeth, swallow hard and make the decision that might allow him to be a semblance of the man.

A man who at the time of a freak hurdling accident in May 1994 had been a three-time track All-American at the University of Arkansas in the hurdles and later in the U.S. Army had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials first in 1988 in the 110-meter high hurdles and in 1992 in the 400 hurdles.

"Take the leg," said Register,

giving the grim-faced doctor the clearance to amputate his left leg above the knee. It was a choice the son of a minister made following the 1994 accident that severed the popliteal artery in the left knee.

Doctors were unable to reconstruct the artery using a vein from Register's right leg, leaving that once powerful left leg a smelly, gangrenous mess.

Be something or be a shell of the man he used to be. Keep the leg and live in a wheelchair, or try to move on. Those were his options according to the doctor. "He called them options; I called them choices," Register recalled.

And Register had made his.

"Take my leg."


That was eight years ago. Today Register is a strapping 37-year-old with an engaging smile and a love of life that that seems to emanate from every pore. It was a long road back. Register first took up swimming and by 1996 qualified for the Paralympics in Atlanta where he anchored the 400 medley relay.

At the end of 1997 he was equipped with a running prosthesis, and in two years he was running, and jumping, well enough to make the U.S. Paralympic Team. In the 2000 Paralympics at Sydney, Australia, he won the silver medal in the long jump, setting the U.S. record in the process, with a leap of 5.41 meters, approximately 17 feet 9 inches.


On this Monday morning, Register was in Oakland dressed in shorts, short-sleeved shirt and sandals as he waited patently for paperwork to be processed to clear him for a visit to the intensive care ward at Children's Hospital.

Register , who lives in Virginia, visits a lot of hospitals around the country to talk to people who have also sufferedsetbacks such as his.

Being the assistant program manager for the United States Army Better Opportunities For Single Soldiers Program is his real job, but he is also on the board of directors for Disable Sports USA and a member of Hartford Team Ability, which is dedicated to helping debilitated individuals return to a more normal life.

He is also a spokesperson for the plastics industry, which he credits with his return to competitive athletics by its development of functional, comfortable prosthetics.

People in the waiting room at Children's Hospital in Oakland couldn't help but stare at Register. He's used to it and always reacts with a smile. There are no reservations about the glistening, 10-pound titanium assemblage -- complete with hydraulics and shock absorber -- that serves as his left leg now.

"Kids see it and call me the Terminator or the Six-Million Dollar Man," laughed Register, who is married to his college sweetheart, Alice, and has three children -- Ron, John Jr. and Ashley.

It is not that far-fetched to see Register as something of a modern-day Steve Austin.

Through major advances in health technology -- including an innovative, flexible plastic socket with a carbon graphite frame that fits comfortably over the stump of Register's left leg and actually allows his thigh muscles to continue growing instead of atrophying -- he is again a force on the track.

Besides the silver medal he won at Sydney, Register has run a 13.85 in the 100 meters, a 30.54 in the 200 and is in training for the World Championship in Lile, France, in July and the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

These days, the Gulf War veteran spends much of his time traveling around the country talking to other people -- many of them children in hospitals -- who have lost limbs or are otherwise debilitated and depressed about their future.

"I've seen kids who were very closed off when I first came in," he admitted. "But after they see my prosthetic leg and hear how my life has gone to the next level, they're more open to what I have to say."

He spent two hours at Children's Hospital, visiting with children and parents and offering segments of his uplifting, emotional talk "Hurdling Adversity and Protecting Dreams of Gold."

"I offer encouragement," Register said. "I know how important it was for me, how many people -- particularly my wife -- who helped me overcome this. I'm there to tell them there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

Register can remember how deep in depression he was after the loss of his leg. "I grieved for my leg," he admitted. He said he couldn't conceive of life without one leg at first but said it took all of about 25 minutes following his release from the hospital to adopt a positive outlook.

It happened when Alice and John Jr. wheeled him out of the hospital. It had been two weeks since Register had been out in the sun.

John Jr. wanted to play on some swings at a playground close by, but Register's wheelchair kept him from doing anything but watching his wife and son frolic from a distance.

It was too much.

"I lost it," he recalled. "At that point, I knew what it would mean to never be able to get out of that wheelchair. I cried a lot. But when my wife and son came over and told me things would be all right, I realized I could sit there with my self pity or try hard to get back and be with my family again."

He chose the latter. Again, it wasn't easy.

Advised to swim to help in his rehab, he was swimming at Paralympian level by 1996.

When he was originally fit with the prosthetic leg, it had a hard plastic socket that fit over his stump. It was uncomfortable, and his leg absorbed all of the shock whenever he did anything involving walking or running.

"I could only walk about 400 meters before I'd have to stop," recalled Register, who vowed his running days were over if he couldn't be anything close to what he was before.

However, Tom Guth -- chief research prothesist at the RGP Prosthetic Research Center in San Diego and a pioneer in the use of advanced plastics in prosthetics -- developed a soft, flexible plastic socket that allows Register to absorb naturally the impact and run more comfortably.

Within a year after getting the new socket, Register tied the American record in the long jump and produced the second fastest time in the U.S. in the 400.

When he stood on the podium at the Sydney Paralympics and accepted his silver medal, Register acknowledged it was a "memorable moment."

But the most emotional moment had come earlier.

"Seeing my family walking down the stairs to watch me in the long jump competition," he said slowly. "That gave me a sense that I hadn't done this all by myself."