Being a smoker, having unmanaged high blood pressure and being overweight are three controllable risk factors for having a stroke, so you probably wouldn’t think one of the world’s highest-performing athletes would be susceptible to one. But United States Olympian sprinter Michael Johnson proves that notion wrong.

An unexpected attack

In September 2018 after a workout, Johnson began noticing symptoms on his left side, including coordination loss in his leg, foot numbness and movement restriction in his arm. As an athlete, he immediately recognized that something was up.

“I know my body, and that just did not feel right, so I went to the emergency room,” Johnson recalls.

“It can be easy to look in the mirror to say, ‘I’m a shell of my former self from two to three weeks ago.”

In the emergency room, doctors diagnosed Johnson with a transient ischemic attack, or a miniature stroke, using an MRI. “I was scared, concerned and worried about what my future was going to be like — what my mobility was going to be like,” he says.

Johnson has four Olympic gold medals and had broken multiple world records. Post-diagnosis, he recalls thinking, “’I was doing all the right things to prevent this sort of thing, so why me?”

Staying positive

Since his stroke, Johnson has shifted into his athlete’s mindset to staying focused and hardworking. He’s in physical and occupational therapy to regain balance, coordination and strength, and says he celebrates every win.

“The first day I was able to make some tiny improvements, like being able to walk with a walker,” he remembers. “It was familiar to me as an athlete, making those marginal gains. That kept me going and kept me positive about my ability to make a full recovery.”

For Johnson, understanding his strengths and weaknesses, along with staying positive, has been instrumental in his improvements.

“It can be easy to look in the mirror to say, ‘I’m a shell of my former self from two to three weeks ago,” he says. “But you have to figure out how to replace those sorts of thoughts with something positive. It’s different for everyone, but the main thing is knowing yourself as an individual.”