Sunday, October 23, 2005

JOHNSON BREAKS HIS BACK AGAIN

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 23, 2004

Former Gov. Gary Johnson, known for his athletic ability and attraction to both traditional and “extreme” sports, is bed bound for the next six months after breaking his back in a paragliding accident.

In a telephone interview Saturday, Johnson said he suffered his injury Oct. 13 on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

“I feel fine and I’m going to be all right,” Johnson said.

This is the second time the 52-year-old governor has broken his back. In January 2001, while still governor, he slipped on a patch of ice during a morning jog.

However, Johnson noted that injury was not as serious as his recent one. “I think I was up running again about six weeks that time,” he said. Now he is expected to be bedridden until April.

Despite his injury, Johnson said he feels lucky. The late actor Christopher Reeve, who was thrown from a horse, was paralyzed from a fall of only six feet, Johnson on noted.

Paragliding involves a free-flying, foot-launched aircraft with a self-inflating wing. The structure is similar to a hang glider, though it’s lighter and larger. Paragliders jump off hillsides to launch.

Johnson said he was with about 10 other paragliders the morning of his accident. He had been paragliding from the same spot for about two weeks, he said.

He was the first in the group to take off. “There was no wind, really,” he said. “There was no lift on take-off.”

Johnson found himself heading toward a tree. “My harnass caught in the tree and the wing, if you can imagine this, acted as a slingshot, hurling me into the ground.”

Johnson said he landed on his tailbone. “The main thing I remember is just how hard the impact was he said.

He tried to stand up but his knee gave out, Johnson said.

As it turned out, he suffered a burst fracture of his T12 vertebrae, a broken rib and a knee injury, which Johnson said, will require minor surgery.

Johnson said a helicopter had to be called to airlift him to the hospital in Maui. He returned to New Mexico on Monday.

Johnson said he’s able to walk. “I can get up and go to the bathroom,” he said. He said he can ride in a car, though he realizes that even a minor accident could be devastating to his back.

It’s been a tough year for the former governor. In September, shortly before leaving for Hawaii, he was involved in a minor car crash on I-25 north of Albuquerque. And earlier in the year he and his wife of 28 years, Dee Johnson, divorced.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Johnson said Saturday.

During his eight years as governor (1995 -2002), Johnson was known his athletic pursuits and thrill seeking.

At the end of his term he told reporters that his best day in office was a time he got to go hang gliding. He is a frequent competitor in the Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii. He enjoys skiing, motorcycling, bicycling, kayaking and ballooning.

He also has been known to suffer some physical mishaps. Not long after his 2001 back injury from jogging, he took a spill on a motorcycle on N.M. 14. He wasn’t injured.

A month after leaving office, Johnson broke a leg in a ski accident. However that barely slowed him down. Three months later he scaled Mount Everest.

Johnson said Saturday that he will paraglide again. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Life is live and learn.”

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