The moment that convinced Michael Johnson he would make a full recovery from his stroke felt both comfortingly familiar and horribly alien.
It was just 200 metres – the same distance that had made him a household name, one that he once covered in a world record 19.32 seconds. Only this time it was different. There was no starter’s gun to set him on his way. No golden spikes, or the trademark puffed out chest and gun-barrel straight back – the trademarks which left his rivals cowering before the race was even run .
Here, in the sterile surroundings of a Los Angeles hospital, there was just Johnson, out of bed for the first time in three days, and an overwhelming sense of the unknown.
He looked at the clock and started timing. After a lifetime dictated by the tick-tock of a second hand, it seemed the natural thing to do. Then he set off down the hospital corridor, channeling every bit of concentration into edging his leg forward and forcing his numb left side to mimic the right.
“It took me 15 minutes,” he recalls, in his first interview since the illness. “I used to be the fastest person in the world at that distance. But I wasn’t discouraged. I got back to my room and said to my wife: ‘I will make a full recovery and I will make a full recovery faster than anyone has ever done it before.‘”
His will to succeed was as strong as it had been for any of his Olympic titles. There would only ever be one outcome.
It is now little over two months since the world was shocked by the news that Johnson had suffered a stroke. Such events are unexpected by their very nature, but of all people to suffer such a fate, no one predicted it would be him.
More than 27 years since winning the first of a dozen global sprint titles, Johnson has always prided himself on being a model physical specimen. Age has been no hindrance and he attempts to maintain a similar routine to that which made him the fastest man in the world. No smoking, no junk food and daily workouts. Which is exactly what he had been doing on that fateful day on August 31.
Everything had seemed normal. There were no red flags during an uneventful training session and even the weather was typical of a late summer’s afternoon on America’s west coast with clear, still skies. Then, on exiting his home gym, the tingling began. There was no pain – in fact, there would be no great pain at any point – just an uncomfortable, unfamiliar sensation on the left side of his body. For a man who moved so smoothly on the track, he knew the coordination in his left foot was awry.
At first he did what anyone would and searched online for an answer, but it was only after calling a colleague in medicine that his wife decided to drive him to hospital to be checked out. He did not leave the facility for six days.