The NCSL Blog


By Julie Lays

"Adversity can make you stronger!” When this is spoken by someone who has suffered nothing near the real adversity you have, it’s pretty hard to keep listening. But when someone who has suffered a great personal tragedy or serious injury says it, it’s hard not to want to listen to his story. 

Two years after John Register’s first run with an artificial leg, he set the American long jump record and earned the silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.That’s what the 50 or so people at “Hurdling Adversity to Embrace Life’s New Normal,”—a session on the professional development track at the Legislative Summit in Nashville—had the privilege of doing on Monday.

How does one bounce back from being an Olympic track and field hopeful and Army officer candidate one day to an amputee the next? John Register knows how, and he shared his inspirational story to the attentive group. It’s all about cultivating a resilient mindset, he says.

He was preparing to compete as a member of the 1996 Olympic Team, when, on May 17, 1994, one misstep over the hurdle changed his life. A faulty landing hyper-extended his left knee, which severed an essential artery.  An attempt to reconstruct the artery failed, and within days, gangrene set in. Amputation followed. Though the experience was devastating, Register refused to let it defeat him. 

In this very engaging session, where audience participation was required, Register told us that when bad things happen, we can choose to view them as obstacles or opportunities. Either way, they require us to shift our perspective and create a new normal. Acceptance of this new normal comes from inside; he pointed out that resilience contains the word “silence” within it.

He illustrated how he found a new normal with a story about how a double amputee teammate jumped in the overhead bin of an airplane during the pre-boarding stage for a hilarious prank on the next passenger. The stunt literally changed his perspective, erasing the funk he had been in about being part of the Para-Olympic team when he really wanted to be on the “real” Olympic team. It helped him value and appreciate his team members rather than just tolerating them.

He had another ah-ha moment the day he realized he hadn’t “overcome” his injury (he still didn’t have a leg), but instead, he had overcome the disability and its negative stigma.
He brought these concepts into the legislative arena, asking attendees how, during a tough legislative session, do we listen to opposing views with respect, not just tolerance? And, when we are in the minority, how do we assert our own beliefs while respecting the institution and those in the majority?

Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.