Michael Johnson: The world’s fastest man learns to walk again

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The joy of being the only person in the world to hold the record for both the 400m and 200m races in the Olympics is a feeling no-one has ever had, except Michael Johnson.

US athlete and Olympic champion Michael Johnson is one of the greatest sprinters in history. In the 1990s, he tore through the record books with a series of thrilling gold medal wins.

Texas-born Michael was raised in his family with four other siblings. His sisters always bullied him and had him do very funny and interesting things. He laments saying; ‘A good part of my habit of running actually came from having to run from my siblings all the time.’

Back in high school, Michael enjoyed his field and track events, even though he did not have an exciting person for a coach. He recalls his coach being a very nice man, but not exactly the best of coaches. ‘He did show up a week before heats and ask, ‘who wants to run tracks this year?’ and just like that, he pushed them into races. He was not the best, but he recognised Johnson’s talent and started putting out letters to help him get a scholarship

Even at that early age, Johnson had already made up his mind about wanting to be in the Olympics and the interesting thing is, he wanted to be there to win the ultimate price and nothing else.

Everyone called the sprinter the most deliberate man on earth because, at the time when his field carrier started to pick up, people always saw the deliberate effort he put into preparing for his races and then going ahead to win them.

According to Michael, his favourite part of the race is, ‘when everyone competing is seated in the cold room. I loved the pressure. We were all here to win and we would find out in just about 19 seconds. Some tried to intimidate others, but there I never focused on intimidating anyone. My thought was, there are eight of us in this room and only one of us can win the race and that has to be.’

Describing his feeling towards his competitors, Michael says he hates them . ‘They all want what I am there to get and that meant I had to do anything and everything possible to win the race.

Michael Johnson qualified for the 1992 Olympic competition after beating some of the best athletes in the United States though he, unfortunately, had to run in what is known by all as the worst lane to run a race – lane 8.

At this point, one can say Michael was at the very peak of his career. He was exactly where he wanted to be and was poised to win at all cost. Barcelona 1992 was Michael’s first try at gold at the Olympics.

Johnson and his team fly to Barcelona and the night before his quarter-final race, the most unthinkable happened. ‘So, my coach and I and a couple of others went out for supper at this diner. We had our meals and when I woke up the next morning I was feeling extremely horrible. I had food poisoning. There was absolutely nothing I could do.’

This meant Michael had to miss the qualifying round of the reason why he was in Barcelona and that totally shattered him. Though he run the 4X100 with his team and did win, he knew deep within, nothing could replace the loss. ‘I had won gold with the team, but I was not there to win with the team. I had dreamt of winning the Olympics as an individual athlete, so my mission in Barcelona was not complete.’

The young sprinter, with his shattered dream headed back home to try again in the next four years.

In 1996, the Olympic event was held in Atlanta and now, Michael had even more reason to win the gold medal. Not only for his 200m race but also the 400 and to break records while at it.

Johnson had his personal designer, get him a pair of running shoes, which were so stunning and he loved every bit of it. But, his coach looks at them and says, ‘Well, I don’t like it. When you wear those, they will just look like silver shoes on the track.’ Michael excitedly turned to Tobi – his designer and asked, ‘can you make this in gold?’ So, just like that, Michael laid hands on his very popular gold running shoes and this even urged him on further. ‘I could not imagine myself wearing gold running shoes and standing in second or third place. Whenever I imagine myself wearing them, I always saw myself at the top.’

The moment arrived and Michael Johnson was on the tracks again, but first for his 400m race. He ran the race and just as he had purposed, he broke the record of the race and rightly made gold. But that was not what Michael desired, he was there to make up for Barcelona 1990. He was there to win the 200m race, break the world record, and go home a fulfilled man.

The day of the race, Johnson receives a text message from a woman called, Ruth Sullivan, widow of Jesse Owen – a black man who was a four-time gold medallist in Germany. Her message was very simple, ‘Michael, deliver!’

The race began, heated as expected and tensed. Everyone vigorously trying to outrun the next person. But, yes! Michael Johnson won. Wearing his very famous gold shoes, Michael did not only win the race but broke the world record by a mile.

This was what he was there for. This was why he wanted to be an Olympian. This was the dream! And till today, no other person holds a title for breaking both the 200 and 400-metre record.

After retaining his title as the world best at the 2000 Olympics, Michael Jordan hang his boots and took to media and TV shows. He also started a training academy where he spent all of his time grooming and shaping other young athletes to also live their dreams.

Due to this routine, he kept up a rigorous work-out regime, exuding health and fitness. So, for Michael, it was frightening and unnerving when he had a stroke in 2018.

Michael narrates the morning of his stroke saying; ‘I was outside working out with my wife out there and my dog. I turned to walk back into the house and I could not move my left leg. In no time, my left hand was not responding to movement as it should. It was a strange experience. Not having any control. So, I called my wife and told her this was a strange feeling. It was only getting worse with time, so we rushed to the emergency room. I had barely sat when my name was called, and there I knew something was wrong because it never happens that quickly.

I entered the room and had doctors and nurses all around me attending to me.’ The doctors confirmed to Michael he was having a stroke. ‘I can’t have a stroke. I eat healthily, I exercise, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink so, yes! you’re wrong, I don’t have a stroke.’

Michael Johnson, once the fastest man in the world was here and could barely walk by himself.

In spite of his disbelief, Michael indeed had a stroke. But, like the Olympian that he is, he had a winning mentality and was ready to start physiotherapy as soon as the very next day. His focus was on recovering and getting back to being himself.

At this point, Johnson was completely paralyzed on the left side and needed help to do everything. He spent two days in the hospital and was moved to the physio centre to start treatment.

In a few weeks after starting physiotherapy, Michael Johnson started to take steps again.’ I was amazed when I started to take little steps and I did a 200m distance in 10 minutes. Something I did in just about 19 seconds a few years ago. It was totally transforming.’

Michael had the support of his wife, Harmony who was with him every step of the way and kept reminding him of all the good day they had enjoyed together and why they had to look forward to better days.

This mentality greatly motivated Michael and had him up and taking strides in just about 2 months after he started physiotherapy.

Michael Johnson is now back on his feet and fully recovered, but says the fear of having another stroke keeps him on edge, ‘but then, I remember stress can actually give you a stroke, so I immediately stop stressing.’

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