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Okemos racer overcomes injury

Michael Johnson was paralyzed at age 12. Now, he’s racing - and competing - professionally behind the wheel.
Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 8:32 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - Michael Johnson began racing motorcycles when he was around three years old.

“It might’ve just started as a hobby at first, he said. "But we learned really quickly that I was pretty good at it.”

Before he was even a teenager, Michael had racked up 14 national championships in the United States and Canada.

Michael Johnson, center, hoists a trophy after winning a motorcycle race as a child.
Michael Johnson, center, hoists a trophy after winning a motorcycle race as a child.(michaeljohnsonracing.com)

But on August 13th, 2005, Michael’s life changed forever.

“I was 12 years old that day," he recalls. "I either hit a rut or somebody’s rear wheel going into turn three on like the third or fourth lap and I made a straight turn straight into the wood post. The front wheel hit the wood posts and I hit my chest on the handlebars and it just threw me over. When I hit my chest, it just broke the back. I became paralyzed that moment. It’s already been 15 years since that, the day that changed everything.”

But it hasn’t been fifteen years wasted - Michael kept racing as if the crash never happened.

“Racing has been my therapy," he said. "It’s the one thing that I’ve always loved to do. It’s the one thing that I’m really good at. Once you have it in your blood, you just can’t get rid of it...you can’t stop. It’s nice to be doing what I love, even if it is on four wheels [instead of two].”

Now, Michael races in the Michelin Pilot Challenge Series, a part of the International Motor Sports Association, which is owned by NASCAR.

He has a win on the circuit, and he’s won pole position at Daytona, a year after breaking his leg on the same track.

Michael Johnson celebrates after winning pole position at Daytona.
Michael Johnson celebrates after winning pole position at Daytona.(michaeljohnsonracing.com)

“Daytona is such an iconic track," Johnson said. "Everyone knows Daytona. To know that you’re the fastest is a really cool feeling.”

It’s not an individual effort though.

Michael has the company of his friends: teammate Stephen Simpson and driver assistant Josh Gibbs.

“I was working with a spinal cord injury recovery, and was able to have Michael as a client, we built a relationship,” said Gibbs.

Since their circuit allows for a driver switch, Michael drives the first half, then Simpson drives.

That’s all impossible without Gibbs.

“I’m running out fast as I can grab him out of the car, taking him around the car, back to the pit wall for safety,” said Gibbs.

Michael Johnson and Driver Assistant and Trainer Josh Gibbs prepare for a race.
Michael Johnson and Driver Assistant and Trainer Josh Gibbs prepare for a race.(michaeljohnsonracing.com)

Michael says the support he’s had over the last 15 years from friends and family has been what makes him drive to be better.

“I would not be here racing today, if it were not for those people.”

And he hopes that he can be a role model for aspiring racers who have suffered similar injuries.

“I’m glad I’m able to show other people in wheelchairs what you can really do," he said. "You don’t have to have your sights on something lower than what you expect. Always have a dream. And I’m really glad that I can portray that to the world.”

Copyright 2020 WILX. All rights reserved.

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