OKLAHOMA CITY — Military veteran Johnnie Williams is proof anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
Williams, a wheelchair athlete, is currently training in Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District with hopes of rowing for Team USA in the Paralympics.
This may seem like a lofty goal for someone who’s only been para rowing for 11 months, but Williams is familiar with the U.S. Paralympics, a branch of the United States Olympic Committee. The 35-year-old competed in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. He came in eighth in discus.
“It was awesome,” Williams said. “It was a great experience.”
Williams still has the gold medal he won in the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championship in discus and javelin, and the bronze medal he won in javelin in the 2015 Parapan American Games.
Williams’ accolades in adaptive sports started after a dark time in his life. He joined the U.S. Army in 2001, two weeks after graduating from Brandon Senior High School outside Tampa, Florida.
“In 2003, my convoy was in an accident in Iraq,” Williams said. “I was hurt pretty bad.”
Williams is paralyzed from the waist down. He uses a wheelchair to get around.
“After the accident, I moved back to Tampa,” he said. “I was 20 at the time and trying to figure out what to do next with my life.”
Williams said he started self-medicating, drinking and partying.
“I also started to get really involved in adaptive sports,” he said. “I competed in the endeavor games a few times, but I kept up the partying and I was stretching myself too thin.”
Williams and his wife moved to Oklahoma City in 2012 to get a fresh start.
It worked. Williams landed a spot on Team USA in 2016, but he did not make the national team in 2017.
“After Rio, I took some time off and had a couple surgeries,” Williams said. “When trials came around again, I wasn’t ready.”
Williams heard about the adaptive rowing program in the Boathouse District through a connection at the VA. In July, he decided to give it a try.
“I love the overall fitness,” he said. “It’s just you and the elements, and you can really give it your all.”
Williams is coached by Andrew Johnson, an adaptive athlete himself and a U.S. Navy veteran. Johnson is also a founding member of Oklahoma City’s veterans rowing team.
“Johnnie has the mindset to get to the level where he can row for Team USA in the Paralympics,” Johnson said.
Williams has competed in a regatta in Philadelphia, the 2018 Oklahoma Regatta Festival OGE NightSprints and recently placed at Dallas SWEAT, an indoor rowing competition in Texas.