Interview: Paralympian John Register

The local silver medalist, author and speaker talks about Beijing 2022, Black History Month and greater athletic and cultural equity in Colorado Springs and beyond.

John Register was one of the fastest hurdlers in the world in 1994. He had been a four-time All-American at the University of Arkansas and was a Gulf War veteran and a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete program. His sights were set on qualifying for the 1996 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles — until a freak misstep over a hurdle mangled his leg and severed an artery behind the kneecap. Register had his left leg amputated, and his life was changed. Sports were the only way he knew how to recover, so Register began swimming. He discovered he was fast and learned about the Paralympics. And in Atlanta 1996, he swam as a member of U.S. Paralympic Team. Register began running again, and in Sydney 2000, he set an American long jump record and won the silver medal.

Register went on to work at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and started the USOPC Paralympic Military Program. Today, Register is an author and motivational speaker, challenging businesses and listeners to embrace a new normal mindset and hurdle adversity to realize their goals. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 18 years. His prosthetic leg “Old Faithful” is on display at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, and there’s a good chance you might spot Register there too.

John Register long jumps to Paralympic gold at Sydney 2000 Paralympics
John Register long jumps to Paralympic silver in Sydney at the 2000 Paralympics. Photo courtesy of John Register.

We caught up with the local Parlaympian for an insightful conversation about the Paralympics in Beijing 2022, Black History Month, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum and greater equity in the Games and culture for Colorado Springs and beyond.

Springs: As the Paralympics kick off March 4 in Beijing, it seems like there has been more awareness and attention for them in recent years. How far have you seen the Paralympics come since your competitive days and what more would you like to see?

John Register: The Paralympic Games have grown tremendously since my day competing at the ninth rendition of the Paralympic Games in 2000. We were competing in the uniforms of the 1996 Olympic team. So we wore the hand-me-down uniforms of the Olympic team that competed in Atlanta, Georgia. We got apparel and things, but it was all hodgepodge. With the founding and amalgamation of the five disability sport organizations into U.S. Paralympics, we began to see some movement toward equity.

Equity was really brought out by Channel 4 in Great Britain, where they put into operation a true parallel Games performance on their networks. They challenged people by not just having the athletes shown as inspirational stories. They trained anchors to talk about the Paralympic Games from that vantage point, instead of only having Paralympic athletes do color commentating, as we continue to do in the United States.

So what I started doing inside of Colorado Springs is becoming the Mike Tirico of the Paralympic Games. I just made myself that on my own social media, so they could see a person with a disability reporting and showing that we can get in some of these jobs as well.

As I see the progression of the NBC network putting the Games on, let’s also be clear that the way that we get on television in the United States is through sponsorship. And the business that’s sponsoring and seeing the value of Paralympics and bringing the cash to the table is Toyota. That’s what’s driving this.

Where do you see that equity equation landing right now?

Well, it remains to be seen, but where I hope it goes is that as we approach L.A. 2028, in that metropolis of media, we begin to see the stories emerge beyond the human interest story. I’m not saying the stories are not inspirational, so don’t take that wrong. What I’m saying is that if we only focus on the inspiration story, we generally don’t put it in the right context. For example, when LeBron James gets the ball on the wing, drives to the post, goes up for a monster dunk, and the crowd goes wild, no one says that was the most inspirational dunk I’ve ever seen in my life. We say, “That was incredible.”

That’s the context we should be celebrating and honoring the Paralympic athlete — that they are doing exactly what they have been designed to do. They just have — not a different ability — they have a disability. We don’t need to take away from the disability. And this is a huge thing inside of the disability world — I don’t have to be identified by my disability, but I do have a disability. So to say I’m otherly abled or I’m differently abled, what that means is I’m trying to assimilate to a society that is not. I would not call myself differently Black. A Hispanic person would not call themselves differently Hispanic or a gay person say I’m differently gay. Right? We say who we are.

If we take it one step further, then I don’t want you to see my disability per se. I want you to call me by how my mother called me, how my father called me. Call me John. See me as the person. And then, when the context comes — for example, we’re about to put him on stage because he’s a professional speaker. So let’s make sure we have a ramp so he can actually walk up the ramp instead of having to walk up the steps, because he has an artificial limb. Or for someone who uses a wheelchair, let’s make sure we have a ramp so we can make access. If we don’t, then it’s not the content that person has in their head that is lacking — it’s the access they have to the platform that they need to present the information.

John Register and Samantha Brown at the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum
John Register appears on Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, showing his silver medal and prosthetic leg in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum. Photo courtesy of VisitCOS.

That reminds me of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum. How important has the museum been in raising equity for the Paralympics Games and athletes?

It’s brilliant. The equity conversation is embodied in that museum. And I don’t think people understand it from that standpoint. I still don’t think we understand what a gem we have in Colorado Springs. The museum is the embodiment of universal design where — even if you have a disability or don’t identify as a person with a disability — everyone experiences that museum at their own level.

That’s what we’re trying to get to. I don’t need to go to a hotel in Colorado Springs and bring in, say, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the International Wheelchair Games with 1,100 wheelchair users and have a hotel in Colorado Springs tell me, “Well, we only have six accessible rooms.” So who gets the six?

When we’re building these new construction projects, we should be thinking, “How do I have a universal design, so I can get access to the 15% of the world’s population that identifies as a person with a disability, which equates to 1.2 billion people, which equates to $8 trillion of economic buying power?”

In a design like the Olympic and Paralympic Museum, you don’t even realize you’re going through a museum that is totally accessible, because you’re experiencing it at your own level. That’s what I think that museum does globally, not just in Colorado Springs. And that’s why I continue to support it — not only that, it’s the home of our Olympians and Paralympians and it feels like that. You can feel it going through the exhibits that it’s seamless.

You have a lot of strong ties represented in the museum too, don’t you?

It’s the legacy piece for me that is the most paramount. When I was at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, I was the founder of the Paralympic Military Sport Program. And now inside the museum, you see some of those injured service members. Melissa Stockwell [Swimming 2008, Paratriathlon 2016] was the first woman in combat to have her leg amputated while she served in Iraq. You have Rico Roman [Sled Hockey 2014, 2018, 2022], who’s over there right now in China. All these soldiers on the museum wall, I was at probably 90% of their bedsides when they got out of their theater, and I told them about the Paralympic Games.

We have Dan Cnossen on the wall [Biathlon, Cross Country Skiing 2014, 2018, 2022]. We have Dartanyon Crockett [Judo 2012, 2016]. He’s not a military guy, but he’s like a brother. I see his gi for judo inside the room that’s right beside my artificial limb, which is right down the hall from Melissa’s likeness. April Holmes [Track and Field 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016] is running on the track above me. And I see Carl Lewis who I’ve jumped with. I see Bob Beamon in there who I know, and all these worlds collide with me inside of there.

Who should we be watching for in Beijing over the next few weeks?

One of the strong ones I absolutely adore is Oksana Masters [Cross Country Skiing, Biathlon 2022, 2018, 2014; Road Cycling 2016, 2020; Rowing 2012]. She is an absolute beast, but to me she also represents the infancy of the Paralympic Games. If you don’t know Oksana Masters, she won in the Summer Games in Road Cycling and has transferred her skills to the slopes and the skis. Tatyana McFadden [Track and Field 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016] does kind of the same thing.

You did see more Olympic crossover athletes in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, but you see it less and less with the skill development in each sport. You can only do that when the sport is in its infancy. The sport evolves. Because Oksana can do this, we’re seeing that the Paralympic Games are not as evolved as the Olympics. The competition should be so high that she’s forced to choose.

She’s the best athlete in both areas; we’re just not finding all the other athletes. To me, this goes outside of disability. It goes into a diversity, equity, inclusion conversation of having access to opportunities. Who’s getting the access? Who gets access to healthcare, for example? Who gets access to prosthetic care? Who gets access to wheelchairs?

Paralympic athlete John Register appears with First Lady Michelle Obama
Paralympic athlete John Register appears with First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo courtesy of John Register.

How does that access open up?

I was at a volleyball tournament recently and heard parents screaming “Our team is the best!” Well, are you? Because I think you’re just the best of those that can afford $6,000 every six months to play the sport of volleyball and travel. You’re not the best. You’re just the best of those people. If you’re only homogenous to one talent pool, you don’t have the best talent on your team; you just got the best of that talent pool you went after. If you really want to measure yourself, open up access. Take your privilege away and give power to another group to expand the talent pool.

We saw this happen in the [Beijing] Olympics. We saw power yield itself to power, as I would say, with Brittany Bowe and Erin Jackson. Erin Jackson is the world’s number one speed skater in the 500 meters. Brittany Bowe was probably going to medal in the 1,000. But [at the Olympic Trials] Erin stumbled [and failed to qualify for the Olympic event], and Brittany won. So Brittany gave the [guaranteed] slot to Erin — not because Erin’s an African-American skater, but because Erin Jackson is the world’s No. 1 skater. And if Team USA is going to win the gold medal, she’s the best chance for that medal.

So that’s the giving and the yielding of power and privilege. Brittany had the power because she won the Olympic Trials. She had the privilege because now with that power, she can represent Team USA. She said, “But I’m not the best one. My teammate is the best one. So let me give her this spot and yield my power to her.” Once she yielded it, Erin was on the team. Erin won the gold medal, and then Brittany won bronze in the 1,000 meters. So we got two medals.

It’s understanding that you’re picking from a better talent pool than you have around you so that your whole organization can elevate. That’s power yielding itself.

As we close out Black History month, what lessons and insight can we take away from that? And what can we do here in Colorado Springs to foster that greater yielding of power for greater equity?

I think the first thing is we understand that different people have different experiences. Just because a person has a different experience than the majority, it doesn’t mean that experience should be discounted. It’s just a different experience.

Two, we can understand that Black History is American history, and we can choose to talk about it and honor and celebrate all people that have built this country or not. The Germans did it with the Holocaust. They teach it in the history books, so that it would never happen again. They teach the horrors of the Holocaust. We should be teaching the horrors of slavery. We shouldn’t be sugarcoating it.

But we also can celebrate the triumphs through all that with a Garrett Morgan who invented the [precursor of the] gas mask and [an improved] working traffic light. And we get a Lewis Latimer who was on Thomas Edison’s team. It was Lewis Latimer, a Black man, who got the filament to burn longer. Then Edison was able to sell it. We can honor these people who had tremendous impact on our lives.

For Colorado Springs, we have a great community here of people of all walks and sizes and colors and shades. I had a talk with a prominent businessman in our community, and he said that power does yield itself a lot. And I said, “I don’t think so.” So we agree to disagree on this one. But he was talking about it from the standpoint of trying to improve kids’ lives that are in the minority. But that’s not yielding power; that’s elevating status. Status is fluid. It shifts. It goes up and down. I can elevate somebody in your family without giving them power.

Something’s amiss. It’s not about the opportunity. It’s not about the education. It’s not about the hard work. It’s about the purposeful proximity to the opportunity that you need to have. People in Colorado Springs need to be proximal to each other. It’s not about one person extending an olive branch. It’s about both people having opportunities to be proximal to each other. If we get that thing right, Colorado Springs will shoot off the earth. It’ll blow up.

Do you see that happening in any particular arenas? How do we all improve that?

We don’t take the ownership of ourselves, and that’s where my company comes in. We dig deep into taking ownership of our own actions, and our own commitments to the things that we know to do. We say it this way: “When our truth outweighs our fear, we will commit to a courageous life.” I’m not looking at anybody else. I’m looking at myself.

When I have this information, the question is, what are you doing? Don’t tell me what the Republicans are doing. Don’t tell me what the Democrats are doing. What are you doing about this? How are you showing up? Who is on your Facebook feed? Who is on your board of directors? How are you causing impact and change in your world? That’s what we have to ask.

If the answer is, “I’m not doing it,” then let’s get busy. Let’s start doing it. Don’t tell me you can’t find the people. You just don’t have the people on your team to find the people, because we’ve got much talent in Colorado Springs.

Paralympic athlete and medalist John Register near Pikes Peak

In your story and in your speaking, you often talk about finding a new normal. How do we do that in Colorado Springs?

The first thing is we have to define the new normal. New means no prior point of reference. If that’s the case, then why are we trying to use old systems, old thoughts, old ideas in this new environment of the COVID pandemic that we’ve never had any experience with? What did we do when we first had the COVID pandemic? We bought toilet paper. Because when you panic, you do irrational things.

Instead, we have to hold fast to our rituals. The rituals may change a little bit, but the rituals lead us to a rhythm, and the rhythm elevates us to a rise, and the rise creates a desired result that we’re looking for.

I would offer to all Coloradans who are close to the Olympic and Paralympic museum: Take a look and realize that the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius — or Faster, Higher, Stronger — those words are not written in the superlative. It’s not swiftest, highest, strongest. They’re written with the -er ending, which means we can be the swiftest today and swifter tomorrow. We can jump the highest today and jump higher tomorrow. We can lift the heaviest weight today and lift a heavier weight tomorrow.

For our community, we can be that -er ending for each other. We’re going to lift each other higher so we can be stronger and faster and celebrate everyone inside of our community. That’s what I want for them. That’s how we have to begin to look at it for our city. Once we start doing that — and it’s not just a sound bite — the city will take off like nobody’s business.

What do you love most about Colorado Springs?

I think what I love most about the Springs is the opportunity of openness. That miraculous view I get from my front porch every time I come out is gorgeous. I have nothing built in front of it. I get to see that every day. And when I look at the mountains, I’m engulfed and understand that there is a God bigger than me. It is just glorious to look at. And then, I can take our Jeep and go up in the mountains. My wife and I will drive up, and look back across this whole vast land, and see what Katharine Lee Bates saw all those years ago when she penned the poem America the Beautiful.

What is one thing you would like to see change about Colorado Springs?

I would like to see more of a European style city. I know this is beyond my lifetime. But European style city planning brings everybody into the city center, and then you spread out from there, usually by a bus or rail system. I would love to see rail lines from downtown Colorado Springs to our airport, connecting our airport to Denver airport, and then points south to Pueblo and maybe even Trinidad to really connect the cities.

When you’re not speaking and working, where would we find you?

Probably on a Southwest flight following my wife around. She is a Southwest airlines flight attendant. I’ll call her up and say, “Hey, where are you?” And we’ll do a staycation in other cities. And when I’m there, I’m always promoting Colorado Springs.

Follow John Register


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Jeremy Jones
Jeremy Jones is Springs’ co-founder, editorial director and chief outdoor officer. He loves building community by telling stories about all the people, places and culture that make Colorado Springs an amazing place to live. And he’s especially stoked when exploring new places in the Springs, Colorado and beyond. Watch for him hiking, running or mountain biking the local trails with his wife and kids.

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