Competition Drives National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete Mike Johnson

Marine Corps Veteran and NVWG Athlete Mike Johnson.

Marine Corps Veteran and NVWG Athlete Mike Johnson.

Marine Corps Veteran Mike Johnson hates losing.

That competitive spirit is one Johnson says is inherent in his personality, one that fueled him through his early years of playing sports and pitting himself against his siblings. Yet with a life lived with a sizable measure of loss, Johnson had to ensure loss did not become the word that defined him.

A native of West Virginia to a Marine Corps father, Johnson – inspired by Robin Moore’s bestselling book, “The Green Berets” – enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966. The military seemed a natural course for the college dropout, and by 1967, he deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines to Da Nang, Vietnam.

But on Jan. 31, 1968, Johnson endured the greatest loss of his life: a land mine exploded, requiring surgeons to amputate both of his legs, several fingers and a thumb. He also endured trauma to his brain and eyes as well as several shrapnel wounds.

“That competitive spirit – and a strong foundation of family – is what carried me,” he says. “It’s what has driven me since I was a kid.”

Competition is what drove Johnson to endure more than a year of rehabilitation and move back to Utah, where he earned his degree from Brigham Young University, met and married his wife, Jan, and became a teacher. He and Jan – now married more than 40 years – also reared eight children.

“There was too much at stake in my life and with my family; I couldn’t afford to lose,” he says. “I still can’t. I’ll keep fighting and competing until I’m no longer around.”

For Johnson, fighting to overcome and adapt to his injury took far more than a mental shift. A born athlete, he knew physical fitness would play a key role in maintaining his health and quality of life. He was not out of the hospital two years before he started working out at his local YMCA. It was there that a friend shared about a wheelchair basketball team in Denver, and Johnson – assuring basketball runs in his veins – was quick to act on the opportunity.

“Once I got into the competition, I just went nuts,” he says. “It helped so many of us get past our disabilities and helped me get my aggressive energy out.”

Basketball was the gateway to other sports, but as Johnson and his family moved to Alaska for 10 years, adaptive sports opportunities were limited to playing basketball with the kids. But in 1996, Johnson with his family traveled to Seattle to compete in his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG).

“The Games are full of amazing athletes who just happen to be disabled,” he says. “And the Games reminded me and continue to remind me that if they can do it, so can I.”

Johnson attended his second Games in San Diego the following year, but after moving his family back to Riverton, Utah, and continuing his packed schedule of teaching, coaching boys’ and girls’ basketball, and raising his family, he had no choice but to take a break.

Yet Johnson never took the NVWG off his radar. In 2015, he traveled to Dallas to compete in the 35th annual Games. And June 27-July 2, 2016, he will compete in his fourth-ever Games in Salt Lake City – his home turf.

“I get more inspiration out of watching my fellow Veterans compete, achieve and accomplish in one week than I do in an entire year,” says Johnson, who will compete in air rifles, handcycling, 9-ball, slalom and table tennis at the 36th annual NVWG. “The strength they offer me is unmatched.”

And while he loves to compete and beat his fellow Veterans, Johnson assures he will never cease speaking encouragement into the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms. That encouragement is one he carries to the Salt Lake City NVWG and beyond.

“It’s easy to say don’t give up, but it’s harder to do,” he says. “Every day is a challenge to determine if you’re going to get up or not, go to work or not. Sports has helped me live my life and compete to the point where I’m not going to miss work or avoid my responsibilities. That would be easy way out, and there’s too much at stake in life to go the easy way.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.