The new life of stroke survivor Michael Johnson

Four-time Olympic champion hopes his efforts to raise awareness can save lives as he continues his recovery from a stroke last September.

Michael Johnson is a man of many talents.

Olympic champion runner, in-demand television and newspaper analyst, athletes' mentor, humanitarian worker for Laureus Sport For Good, Los Angeles 2028 bid ambassador and more.

You can add stroke education ambassador to the list.

The 51-year-old is proof that a stroke can happen to anyone.

Despite being one of the greatest runners in athletics history, and continuing to lead an active lifestyle, the four-time Olympic champion felt discomfort after a "normal" workout at the end of August last year.

He decided to go to hospital, a move which may have saved his life and certainly prevented permanent brain damage.

Now the American is campaigning for greater awareness of strokes and how to recognise the symptoms as soon as possible.

"Being a stroke survivor is now part of who I am. I want people to understand it can happen to anyone and that there are ways to minimise their risk." - Michael Johnson speaking to the American Heart Association.

How it happened

Just two weeks before his 51st birthday, Johnson had a strength and cardio session at his home gym in Malibu, California.

But he soon knew that all was not well.

"After that workout I began experiencing a very strange sensation. I had a weakness in my left leg and a lack of co-ordination and also a tingling and a numbness in my left arm.

"I made the decision to go to the emergency room and not because I was experiencing any discomfort or pain or even knew that I was having a stroke but just out of caution."

After having a brain scan, which came out clear, Johnson's coordination and strength deteriorated rapidly.

He fell asleep inside the MRI chamber, and then could not get up with the whole of his left side limp and numb.

Johnson had suffered a Transient Ischaemic Attack, also known as a mini-stroke.

This is caused by a blood clot in a brain artery but, fortunately, it was not the more serious form of stroke (haemorrhagic) involving bleeding on the brain.

The scan showed the clot had already gone, but it had left several ruptured blood vessels on the right side of his brain leading to his physical failings on the left of his body.

Doctors quickly diagnosed the condition and gave him 48 hours rest before beginning rehab.

Those two days saw the American grow fearful that he might never walk again, and angry at what had happened to him.

"I was doing all the right things – keeping my weight down, working out every day, eating healthy – and I still end up having a stroke." - Michael Johnson speaking to the American Heart Association

The road back

Like one in three strokes, Johnson's was classified as "cryptogenic", a medical episode for which the cause is not known.

He soon attacked his recovery with the intensity and dedication he showed during a track career in which he won 13 global titles and set world records (since eclipsed) over 200m and 400m.

Apart from "some numbness still on the left side of my hand and my left pinky finger and some numbness on the bottom of my foot", Johnson says he is back to where he was before his stroke.

"I'm back to running, not as fast as when I was competing in the Olympics but I wasn't running that fast before the stroke either."

"I'm back to all of my previous activities. I've always been a very active person participating in lots of physical activity and being very physically active and I'm back there running on the track a few miles a day a couple of days a week."

Since his retirement in 2000, Johnson has become a sought-after media commentator and presides over Michael Johnson Performance, a high-performance training facility in Dallas, Texas.

He also played a major role in the bid to bring the Olympics back to Los Angeles, with the Californian city earning the right to host the 2028 Games.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and bid ambassadors Allyson Felix and Michael Johnson pose with IOC president Thomas Bach in Lausanne in July 2017.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and bid ambassadors Allyson Felix and Michael Johnson pose with IOC president Thomas Bach in Lausanne in July 2017.Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and bid ambassadors Allyson Felix and Michael Johnson pose with IOC president Thomas Bach in Lausanne in July 2017.

Campaigning for stroke awareness

Now Johnson is helping the American Stroke Association raise awareness about preventing strokes, and recognising the warning signs when they occur.

The acronym long associated with reacting to a stroke is something Johnson knows all about: F.A.S.T.

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call emergency number

Stroke is second only to coronary heart disease as the biggest cause of death worldwide.

High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for stroke, along with eating unhealthy foods high in cholesterol, smoking, taking drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, and a lack of exercise.

"What I've learned since having this is that a stroke can happen to anyone and it happened to me."

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