Meet Mike Johnson and Curt Brinkman, two of the greatest wheelchair athletes. They’re breaking records and winning an impressive number of medals and trophies, not only in United States competitions, but at the Olympics as well. They were among the few undergraduates to see the “Y” lighted in their honor during a BYU halftime. But before chalking up their numerous awards, let’s get acquainted.
First, here’s Curt. Today he is 25, but he has no difficulty recalling his 16th summer. “I was six foot seven inches tall, and I loved to play ball, especially basketball. I lettered as a sophomore in high school and even had dreams of playing with the New York Knickerbockers.”
Curt grew up in Shelley, Idaho, where he could always find work on the neighboring farms. “I enjoyed working. I saved every penny as a kid, trying to get my missionary and college funds together,” he recalls. His wife, Bonnie, says that when they got married, Curt had saved six thousand dollars.
Curt’s accident happened one day during a break in his job. “You know, sometimes young kids try crazy things. I looked at an electrical pole and thought, ‘That looks like something challenging to climb.’ So I did.” Witnesses told him that three electrical shocks held him in midair before he fell 25 feet and landed in mud. “The doctor said the impact of falling that far started my heart again, so now I’m alive. I lay there in the mud and thought, ‘I’ll never play ball again.’”
Curt spent six painful months in the hospital. He recalls that his family and friends helped greatly during that time. His close friends visited him regularly. His father kindly insisted he learn to be independent. The town held fund-raising campaigns to help pay medical expenses. When he returned to school, his classmates encouraged him and helped him see the brighter side of life. Curt graduated with his class.
Curt’s testimony helped him, too. His hazel eyes sparkle when he says, “I’m grateful to be a Mormon. I know this life is just a small speck in eternity. Someday I’ll have my legs and run again.”
Curt majored in business at Ricks College for a couple of years. There he met Bonnie Hymas. They were married December 20, 1975, in the Idaho Falls Temple. By coincidence, Mike and Jan Cryer were married a day earlier in the Provo Temple. The two couples had not met at that time. Bonnie and Curt now have a son, Gregory Adam, two years old, and a daughter, Lorian, five months. Gregory likes to somersault over the back of Curt’s wheelchair into Bonnie’s arms.
Mike and Jan have two sons, Seth, 2 1/2, and Matt, 1 1/2, and a daughter, Rachel, eight months. Mike is a few years older than Curt. He just turned 31, and Jan kids him about that. But he isn’t too old for wheelchair competitions. Mike says a man in his 50s won the slalom for class two in California.
Mike grew up in West Virginia, where his parents are members of the Church. He came to BYU as a freshman and fell in love with the mountains. He spent many hours hiking and hunting. Now he makes up wildlife stories each night for his sons. “I’d rather do that,” says Mike, “than just read a story from a book.”
Jan says Seth will listen carefully and then when a story is finished, say, “I didn’t like that story. Tell me another one!”
After his freshman year at BYU, Mike joined the marines. In Vietnam he stepped on a booby trap. Both of his legs had to be amputated. Like Curt, Mike’s recovery was a rough time. He, too, is grateful for the support of his family. Mike recalls: “My folks helped a lot. Dad told me to do my best and not to quit. He helped me have a desire to live.”
Mike returned to BYU in 1971. It was there he first saw Curt. “I watched him get out of his car. He really handled himself well, and I thought he’d make a good player on our wheelchair basketball team. I left a note on his car inviting him to come play.” That invitation started a continuing friendship.
They became involved in other competitions after a man they played basketball with in Denver told them they ought to get involved in track. This man sent information about national wheelchair competitions, and the two started working out on the BYU track. That was in 1976.
That same year they went to Denver and placed first in some track events there. Then they went to San Jose and placed and on to the Nationals in New York and the Olympics in Toronto, Canada. Forty-six countries participated in the Olympics. Together, Mike and Curt brought home three gold, one silver, and three bronze medals. That’s quite a record for their first year of competition!
Mike and Curt do not compete against each other. Curt competes in class five, and Mike in class four. Each athlete is put in a class according to his disability. The classes span from one to five, with class one for the most disabled.
Now look at their accomplishments individually.
Mike shines in javelin. He holds the national record of 87 feet, 9 inches for class four. Mike is also the best wheelchair competitor in the United States in the slalom. The slalom is an obstacle course to test skill and quickness, and Mike is quick. Very quick. Jan loves to watch the slalom competition. She exclaims: “It’s so exciting! Everybody watching it just goes wild.”
Jan recalls that because she couldn’t attend the Olympics, Mike called her after each event, and he placed in each event! He took first place in lawn bowling, even though he’d never competed in that before. He placed first in table tennis, second in the 100-meter dash, and third in javelin. Mike also holds gold medals in the one-half mile, the 100-yard dash, and swimming.
At the Denver meet in 1976, Mike won five golds and one silver medal and the trophy for the Most Outstanding Male Athlete at the meet.
This year, Mike played 30 basketball games around the country. He is second in the nation for scoring. He also played tennis and has never been defeated in tennis in Utah in a singles match. How does he win at tennis? He says, “As soon as the ball leaves the other player’s racquet, I’ve got to know where it’s going. And I have quick reflexes.”
Mike didn’t travel to compete in track or field this year, even though he especially enjoys that area of competition. He says, “The games kept me away from home too much. I miss my track and field, but my family comes first.”
Jan adds, “Mike made the decision. He was the one who decided to stay home and be a husband, father, and gardener.”
Mike and Jan have a beautifully landscaped yard and garden. Jan sewed two pairs of Levis together for Mike to keep the burrs out while he works in the yard. His young sons and Jan work with him.
Curt’s record is impressive, too. He placed second in the wheelchair division in April 1977 and again in 1978 at the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts. He completed the 26-mile, 385-yard race in two hours, 34 minutes, and 15 seconds. That’s right! Over 26 miles!
The Boston Marathon is the biggest and oldest race in the U.S. This is it’s 83rd year, and only the top athletes are selected to participate. This year there were 20 wheelchair competitors racing in temperatures below 40° Fahrenheit. Five of the athletes had to be hospitalized for a brief period after the race for hypothermia. Curt says, “After the first mile of soaring downhill, each wheelchair contestant was covered with mud and water from the chairs in front.” He also explains that wheelchair marathoners have more problems than regular runners because their circulation is poorer.
The wheelchair winner of the Boston Marathon this year was Ken Archer, a Mormon from Akron, Ohio. Curt says: “Ken is one of the greatest fellows I’ll ever meet. When he won, he came across the finish line with his hands raised in triumph and his head bowed in humility.”
In 1977 Curt placed in every event in Denver, taking two first places in the 100-yard dash and the mile push. In San Diego he placed either second or third in five events. At San Jose, he took first in the 100 meters, breaking the world record. He also placed third in lawn bowling and discus and fourth in shotput.
The same year, Curt placed first in the wheelchair division at both the Deseret News Marathon in Salt Lake and the Pioneer Marathon in St. George, Utah. In 1978 he took first in the New York City Marathon and now holds the national record in the 1500-meter run.
Curt was voted Most Outstanding Athlete in 1978 and 1979 at the Denver Rocky Mountain Regional.
Both Mike and Curt are also involved in their careers. Mike has counseled at the State Hospital in Provo, worked as a draftsman for the Bureau of Reclamation, and is now majoring in health sciences at BYU. His goal is to coach college basketball.
Curt has gained experiences in various jobs. He was a resident assistant at Ricks College, an insurance salesman, a desk clerk at a motel, a switchboard operator, and an insurance clerk for a hospital. Now he works at Handicapped Awareness, Inc. in Provo. He graduated with a B.S. degree in psychology from BYU in 1978 and is in the process of getting his masters in rehabilitation administration.
Church activities form another part of their lives. Mike works with the Explorers in the Alpine Fourth Ward, Alpine Utah Stake. He and a couple of other members in the stake took the Explorers to the National Explorer Olympics at Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week in August 1978. Mike coached basketball and helped coach volleyball during the Olympics. Mike says some of the Explorers in his ward like to double date with Jan and him.
Curt and Bonnie are members of the Provo West Stake, Sunset Third Ward. Curt was the elders quorum president in a previous ward and is now the first counselor in the quorum presidency. Bonnie has served as a Relief Society president. Now she is the first counselor in the Young Women organization.
Service is another important part of their lives. To earn money for a specially equipped bus for the handicapped in Utah County, Mike and Curt earned pledges and then wheeled 115 miles around Utah Lake in 16 hours. As a sidelight they shattered the world record which was 108 miles in eight days.
In May of 1978, Curt wheeled 284 miles from Cedar City, Utah, to Salt Lake City in five days, raising nearly twelve thousand dollars in pledges for Easter Seals.
Both athletes have spoken to large groups on a number of occasions. Mike addressed the Orem High School student body during their Freedom Week. He told the students they could go as far up as they want to in life, or they could stand still and not progress at all. Mike says, “The choice is theirs. We live in a country with that freedom. The degree of excellence we attain depends mainly on how willing we are to work.”
Last July, Curt was the keynote speaker during the National Olympic Academy at BYU. He has spoken across the United States at meets and says: “I’ve really seen a lot of the country. If I’ve impressed just a few people the way that I’ve been impressed by others, then it’s been a blessing to be in a wheelchair.”
Curt says traveling has also provided an opportunity for missionary work. He was invited to a party in Boston for 50 top athletes. When asked why he wouldn’t drink, he had the opportunity to share the gospel.
Curt finds it interesting that people are so concerned about what to do and say when they meet a handicapped person. He says that usually it’s what people don’t say that hurts. For example, when a child runs up and asks why he doesn’t have any legs, Curt wishes the parents would let him answer the question rather than hushing the child and rushing off. He explains, “The child grows up feeling he shouldn’t associate with the handicapped, and that’s not good for either one.”
Mike has some advice of his own, and he says it applies to everyone, whether they’re handicapped or not. First, he says, he doesn’t like quitters. Then he adds: “Don’t be afraid to try things you think you might not be able to do. Whatever you want, go after it one hundred and ten percent. Whether your goals concern work, church, school, jobs, marriage, or whatever, just don’t, don’t, don’t ever quit!”