UF Law grad turns tragedy into triumph as a Paralympian
Driving to his LSAT in Gainesville, Johnson realized that his tires needed to be replaced, but he shrugged it off. This was the most important exam he’d ever take, and the tires could wait until afterward.
But on his way home to Tampa after the test, Johnson’s car hydroplaned into a guardrail. His left leg was instantly severed and his right leg was damaged beyond repair.
“I put the exam before my own safety,” he said. “I thought I was invincible.”
As Johnson sat in his car losing massive amounts of blood, a truck driver named Don called for help. Brad remained calm and gave Don his parents’, a family friend’s and his roommate’s contact numbers.
In the next few precious moments, Johnson said a 14-year-old girl with an “angelic voice” grasped his hand and asked him if he wanted to pray with her. Together, they recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Not long after, he found himself lying in a hospital bed, contemplating what the future would be like.
“I had accepted my new physical state,” he concluded.
“Accepted” might be an understatement. Johnson is now a sole practitioner in Fort Lauderdale, and he competes at the elite level of international athletics in the Paralympic Games. Last week, he competed in his third Paralympics. Johnson’s three-man sailing team raced in London where they had qualified for the United States. Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour on the English Channel were the venues for 80 athletes in the Paralympic sailing events.
Johnson competed in the 2000 Paralympics in sitting volleyball. The game has the same rules as regular volleyball but the net is lowered, he said.
That same year Johnson was introduced to sailing. Paralympic sailing differs from Olympic sailing in that the Sonar (a 26-foot keelboat) that he crews has three crewmembers instead of four.
Johnson and his sailing team won the bronze medal in Greece in 2004. His teams won both events in the U.S. qualifiers, but he chose to compete in sailing that year.
“Sailing offers a different challenge,” he said. “It’s intellectual as well as physical.”
Johnson trains for a minimum of four hours a day, three to four times a week in addition to the five to six times a week he exercises at the gym.
The International Paralympic Committee says the Paralympic movement evolved in Britain after World War II to give war-veteran athletes and others injured in the conflict a forum to compete internationally. The Paralympic Games are for people with any disability, and are held a few weeks after the Olympics in the same city.
Following his 1993 accident, Johnson spent six weeks in the hospital. He looked forward to getting prosthetics and starting his new life. He retook the LSAT and started at UF Law in 1994.
That year he met UF Law Professor Sharon Rush.
“He made such an impression on me,” Rush said. “He had insight beyond his years.”
Rush said that what stood out to her the most about Johnson was his ability to put others first.
“He told me that when he got in the accident his first concern was that his mother would have to fly to see him and she was afraid to fly,” Rush said.
This quality, Rush believes, has contributed to Johnson’s success.
“Who wouldn’t want an attorney who was that focused on you and your case?” she said. “He can see the good in whatever the situation is and I imagine his clients really like that.”
Johnson returns the compliment about his education. “The training I received at UF Law was bar-none stellar,” Johnson said. “It’s helped me analytically in sports and law.”
Johnson works as a general practitioner of personal injury law as well as civil rights with an emphasis on disability, and personal injury law. He said running his own firm allows him to manage his own time to compete in sailing.
Johnson does not look at the accident that set his life on this path as a tragedy. Instead, he attributes much of his success to it.
Rush sees a lesson in Johnson’s experience.
“I think all of us can learn from Brad to be grateful for the present moment and to be grateful for the opportunities ahead, even though there is uncertainty,” Rush said.
- Lindsey Tercilla