Basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis, and track. As a naturally athletic child in Toledo, Ohio, Stephanie Johnson participated in practically every sport.
Today, the 28-year-old says she’s more active than ever, despite—or rather, because of—a leg amputation in 2016.
“I have a left femur fracture and I am a right leg amputee, but that doesn’t stop me,” Johnson tells SELF. In fact, “it pushes me more.”
Johnson, a U.S. Army Specialist, is currently competing in five sports at the 2018 Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition for wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans held annually at different military branch host locations across the country. The 2018 Games are currently underway at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, through Saturday, June 9, and 258 athletes are competing across 11 sports.
“My injuries don’t define me,” says Johnson. “I define my injuries.” That means they are the impetus—and never the excuse.
Johnson was wounded on June 8, 2013, while serving in Bagram, Afghanistan. The injury was most intense for the lower half of her body—her left femur was fractured, and her right leg was severely damaged. After three years of limb salvage attempts (“I was always in pain,” Johnson says), she made the decision to amputate her right leg below the knee. “I wanted a better quality of life,” she says.
Within a year of her amputation, Johnson learned how to run with her prosthetic leg. It was a major milestone on several fronts.
“When I first got injured, people told me I would never run again,” Johnson remembers. “But I’m all about proving people wrong.”
She now lives in Arlington, Virginia, and breaks a sweat nearly every day at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, hitting the gym on her own five days a week, playing basketball three days a week, and volleyball and tennis each once a week with the center’s adaptive sports teams.
“I was active before, but I’m a lot more active now because I can get up and do whatever I want to do without any issues," like the chronic leg pain that plagued her post injury and pre amputation, Johnson explains.
She enjoys individual sports, like running and cycling, but team sports—especially basketball and volleyball—are her favorite. “They’re more intense,” says Johnson. “You are all there together as a team, and I like that aspect of it.”
By the end of the 2018 Games, Johnson will have competed in two track events (the 100- and 200-meter sprint events), powerlifting, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and indoor rowing. She would have done cycling, too, but couldn’t manage to fit it in her already-packed schedule.
This is Johnson’s third year participating in the Warrior Games, and although she enjoys the competition, she’s not in it just to win it.
“I came in last in track,” Johnson says of her performance this year in the 100- and 200-meter sprint events. “But I didn’t care—just to be out there doing it, I accomplished my goal. I wanted to finish.”
For Johnson, every finish line she crosses represents a bigger victory.
“If you could take the person I was when I was first injured, I would have said I would never be able to run,” says Johnson. “That first year [post injury, pre amputation], I was in denial. I didn’t want to accept it and I was mad at the wrong people.”
Changing her perspective helped her do “a complete 180," she says. "I realized I’m no longer doing this for myself—I’m doing it for my battle buddies that I lost,” she explains. “They are helping me cross that finish line.” For Johnson, this serves as potent motivation. “I know that if I was gone, they would still be pushing for me,” she says.
What’s next for this athlete? Hopefully, one day, the Paralympics.
In October, she’ll fly to Sydney, Australia to compete in the Invictus Games, the international version of the Warrior Games founded in 2014 by Prince Harry. From there, “I’d like to go to the next level in team sports,” says Johnson, who dreams of one day making the Paralympics in either basketball or volleyball.
In the meantime, she’s not yet done with this year's Warrior Games. The indoor rowing competition, the gold medal games for basketball, and the bronze medal games for volleyball, still await.
“What I would tell people is even despite injuries and obstacles, don’t give up and keep pushing because you never know what can happen,” says Johnson.