Welcome to our “Moments of Will” series, where we’ll feature community members who have faced adversity on their health and fitness journeys, only to come back stronger and better than ever. While they could have let their challenges keep them from their goals, each of them found the will to fight for their physical, emotional and mental health.
Roger Johnson is the king of overcoming setbacks. In a period of five years, he experienced a heart attack, being hit by a car, a cycling fall and two surgeries — just to come out stronger on the other side. If there’s anything Johnson is familiar with, it’s perseverance.
“I WAS DEAD TWICE.”
Johnson, 69, a retired mental health counselor, doesn’t take his health lightly, but admits to on-and-off dedication to his well-being over the years. While he’d trained for large goals in the past — like climbing Horn Peak (standing more than 13,000 feet tall) in Colorado with his son — regular gym time eluded him. “I had worked out before, but it was very sporadic,” he says.
On July 31, 2013, Johnson’s life changed dramatically when he suffered what doctors call a “widowmaker” heart attack. When paramedics found him, he “was functioning in what is called ‘agonal breathing’ — the body’s last-ditch effort to save itself. A nurse performed CPR on me for 23 minutes,” he explains. “I was dead twice. Doctors shocked me nine times.”
At that point, Johnson says he was essentially a heart attack waiting to happen. “I wasn’t working out at all, and I had no fitness goals at that time,” he says. But by the time doctors were able to stabilize him, he had already decided he was going to get healthy as quickly as he could. “If you’ve ever been in a hospital, they’re not any place enjoyable that you really want to be,” he chuckles. “I was just bound and determined that I was going to get out of there.”
His first challenge was cardiac rehab. “I would try to set goals for myself that I knew were theoretically a little bit beyond where I would normally be,” says Johnson. As soon as he was able to walk a 1/4 of a mile, he started pushing for 3/8, a half-mile and so on. Eventually, he wanted to tackle the stair stepper while in rehab, a feat his nurse told him no one in cardiac rehab does. “I said, ‘I will’ — and I did,” he says.
A SERIES OF SETBACKS
No sooner had Johnson gotten a taste of how good it felt to accomplish his health goals, when he was hit with another major setback — literally. Immediately after being discharged from cardiac rehab, Johnson was hit by a car in a parking lot, tearing his right rotator cuff. “I’m thinking, ‘I stayed alive and here I am, getting hit by a car.’ It was just the most unbelievable thing I thing I can ever imagine,” he says. “The physician’s assistant that I was seeing at that time for my heart, was like, ‘I really would have been mad if we’d gone to all of this trouble and you’d gotten killed by getting hit by a car.’ I said, ‘Trust me. So would I.’”
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last setback Johnson would experience. Over the next few years, he would fall off his bike and tear his other rotator cuff, be forced to have his knee replaced and go through prostate surgery — all unconnected circumstances. Fortunately, for Johnson, he viewed these events as speed bumps instead of dead ends on his health and fitness journey.
“I STAYED ALIVE FOR A PURPOSE.”
It’s easy to see how any one of these health issues could have benched some of the most determined people. So how has Johnson found the will to bounce back over and over again? He says it all stems from the simple fact that regardless of how many obstacles he has faced, he has survived.
After his heart attack, Johnson began to comprehend just how miraculous his survival had been. “I just knew God had a purpose for me on this earth — that I had stayed alive for a purpose,” he says. “I was still alive, and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.”
He’s turned that initial moment of will into an entire mindset and something he’s carried with him since. “I guess there gets to be this sense of perseverance,” he says. He’s now playing the long game when it comes to his health, focusing on an overarching goal to stay healthy and enjoy every moment with his family. He’s also setting smaller bite-sized goals to constantly keep him coming back for more. “It’s not how you start,” he says. “It’s how you finish. I do think I’ve been given a second chance in life — I know that there’s a larger goal for me.”
Johnson isn’t slowing down anytime soon. As an avid cyclist, he’s currently training for a 100-mile charity bike ride and has a goal of riding 6,250 miles in 2018. “I refuse to be an older adult that’s overweight and out of shape — I just refuse to be that,” he says. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that I’m in the best health that I can be.”
His experience of setting small goals throughout his many periods of recovery keeps pushing him toward the next achievement. “It’s amazing what the body can do,” he says. “I’m always trying. I don’t always make it, but I try.”