Learning to Shine
By Dollie Elliott
John Register, who spent a week in February on Oklahoma State University’s Stillwater campus participating in the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete — and he made it come true.
Today, Register is a U.S. military veteran, the associate director for Community and Veterans Programs for the United States Olympic Committee and the U.S. Paralympics Division, an entrepreneur, an inspirational speaker, a personal trainer, a coach and a Paralympian.
But in the mid-1980s, Register was a four-time All-American and a member of four national championship track and field teams at the University of Arkansas under legendary coach John McDonnell. After graduating in 1988, Register wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his career but he knew he wanted to continue running track, especially the 110-meter hurdles.
He enlisted in the Army to become part of its World Class Athletic Program, which allows service members to train for two or three years prior to an Olympics.
His training was going well, and he qualified for the Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992. But his Olympic aspirations were put on hold while he was deployed to the Persian Gulf War. Returning from Saudi Arabia, he had less than 11 months to train and qualify for the Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles.
Register made the most of that time. He was improving his time so much that he was projected to quality for the Olympic trials in 1996. Register had just been accepted into Officer Candidate School and had high hopes of realizing his Olympic dreams until May 17, 1994, in Hays, Kan.
Register was near the end of a training session. As he cleared the final hurdle, his leg landed awkwardly and “something went wrong,” he says. His leg seemed to have snapped.
Register hyperextended his left knee, sending his patella (kneecap) three inches above his femur. The dislocation caused a disruption in an artery, leading to a blockage behind his kneecap. He lay there on the track, his leg bent back for 90 minutes before an ambulance arrived. Two hours later, he was flown to see a vascular surgeon in Wichita, Kan. Seven hours later, he underwent surgery, but it was too late. The lower half of his leg had gone more than 10 hours without blood flow and had started dying.
Register could keep his left leg by fusing the knee and use a walker or wheelchair for the rest of his life. Or he could get the leg amputated and learn to use a prosthetic leg.
“I knew it had to be an amputation,” he says.
He credits his wife, Alice, for giving him the strength to make that life-changing decision. “She says, ‘You know what, John? We are going to get through this together. It’s just our new normal.’
“So I began to think about the new normal. I realized, it’s not about what I had lost but the opportunities that still existed for me,” Register says.
And so, he adjusted to the new normal. Register swam for physical therapy at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center, went through the Transition Assistance Program, and began to work for the Army’s Morale Welfare and Recreation program as a sports specialist in the World Class Athletic Program — the very same one where he was an Olympic hopeful.
“The swimming was invigorating, and I somehow managed to make the 1996 Paralympic team in swimming,” he says, finally becoming an Olympic athlete.
In Atlanta, he saw athletes running on artificial limbs and decided that his next goal would be to compete as a track athlete in the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Register became a two-time Paralympic athlete, winning a silver medal in the long jump and setting the American record in the process.
Today, Register is the associate director for Community and Veterans Programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Paralympics Division. He develops and implements promotional strategies to increase awareness for athletic opportunities through Paralympics for wounded service members.
Register uses his story as a platform in his business, Inspired Communications International (ICI), which focuses on inspirational keynotes and training sessions to help businesses and individuals overcome adversity and create a new normal.
In February, Register was on the Stillwater campus for the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, hosted by the Riata Center in the School of Entrepreneurship. He and 24 fellow veterans learned how to start or expand their businesses from professors throughout the business school. Register particularly wanted to learn how to better help athletes he meets in his position with the U.S. Olympic Committee and to improve ICI.
One of ICI’s missions is to help businesses better their employees’ lives. Although he’s had a lot of success with his company, he still had a lot to learn, he says. That’s where the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program came in. “I hoped to learn what it takes at the boot camp,” says Register.
“My expectations are to learn everything I possibly can, to get not only the blueprint right but all the pieces I need for my business model.
“There are phenomenal professors here at Oklahoma State, great team and staff here at the Entrepreneurship program that are really truly authentically giving to the veteran population.”
He says it was a great experience learning with fellow veterans. “I’ve learned that there are a lot of resources out there, and I don’t just have to be a one-man shop and do it all myself,” he says.
“Programs like this give veterans an opportunity to really shine, showing the skills they’ve learned through this stressful environment that we call the military.”