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In the driver's seat

Nearly three years after a catastrophic spinal cord injury during a Barlow High ski team practice, Kip Johnson is reclaiming his life - one muscle at at time
by: John Klicker, Kip works with lead trainer J.J. Fowler at the Beaverton location of Project Walk on Monday, Aug. 14. Project Walk works on the premise that if you give the body the right stimulus, it can heal itself. Project Walk opened its second location in Beaverton in June.

Kip Johnson wheels into Project Walk's 'gym for quads' on a Monday mid-afternoon. His trademark stoic look sets on his face, and his baby blue eyes take on a glint of steel.

He's ready to work.

Trainers J.J. Fowler and Jerod Warf greet him with big smiles and immediately hoist Kip out of his wheelchair and onto a table.

Jewish rapper Matisyahu is pumping from the stereo: 'Got the freedom to choose, You better make the right move, Young man, the power's in your hand.' Fowler works Kip's arms and legs on the table, then carries him to the floor mats.

Kip flexes every muscle available to him to execute a half push-up. Slowly, his torso rises, his back slightly bowed. His arms and shoulders quiver. Kip doesn't make a sound, just keeps pushing. Fighting for every centimeter.

Ever since a ski accident in December 2003 put Kip in a wheelchair and doctors told him he had zero chance of walking again, Kip has spent every day working to get out of the chair.

Project Walk is a controversial approach to some, but to Kip and the Johnson family, it's the only approach that makes sense.

At Project Walk, which in June opened its second location in Beaverton, the mindset is present in everything they do and say.

'This is a really exciting phase for Kip,' Fowler says. 'He's starting to put on muscle mass. The idea is to maintain the freedom he has and get him more freedom.'

The family had been flying him down to Carlsbad, Calif., where Project Walk began, at huge expense, to spend weeks at a time. Paraplegics and quadriplegics from around the world migrate to the center following spinal cord injuries.

The Beaverton Project Walk has been a 'huge blessing' for the Johnson family, says Kip's mother, Lisa. Instead of relying on friends' vacation condos and paying for flights, Lisa drives Kip across town from their Gresham home three times a week for Kip's two-hour workouts.

'What we believe is that when given the stimulus, the body can heal itself,' says Fowler, who moved his family to Beaverton to run the facility off Allen Boulevard. 'We are forcing a new system to grow.'

As Kip completes push-ups, Lisa comments that his back used to be far more swayed. His injury left him with no movement below his shoulders and partial arm movement - just biceps and wrist extenders.

His stomach is tightening up, receding from what Lisa calls a 'quad belly,' a distended stomach that results from a lack of control over the abdominal muscle wall.

At Project Walk, Kip works with whatever he can.

'We'll take anything,' Fowler says. 'We'll beg, cheat, steal and borrow, use whatever he can to create the movement. And Kip's doing great. When I got to Portland, I was amazed. I hadn't seen him since January.'

Kip, 21, is driving now, consoling himself about his soccer mom minivan with the fact that he's got 'black windows and nice wheels.'

With a remote control ramp, motorized seat and hand controls, Kip can get himself out of his wheelchair and into the driver's seat with no help.

'Most people with Kip's function can't do that,' Lisa says.

'I guess I'm just stubborn,' Kip says.

The Barlow High School graduate, who now attends Mt. Hood Community College, is realistic about Project Walk. His goal is to walk again, but for now, it's to stay healthy.

Quadriplegics deal with a host of health problems because they sit in a chair much of their lives. Circulatory problems can result in amputations. Hip joints can fuse into the sitting position. Scoliosis can set in. Pressure sores can fester.

In between now and walking again, Kip says his workouts keep him healthy. Muscle spasms are welcomed, not sedated by medication. More bulk in his calves and thighs is viewed as progress, not as more dead weight to haul around.

Life for all the Johnsons is different now - a 'new normal.'

Before Kip's injury, he had aspirations to join the track team at the University of Oregon. The javelin was his best event. Instead, he lives in a new wheelchair-accessible wing of his parents' house, largely funded through donations and built with help from his father, Gordy's, coworkers at the Portland Fire Bureau.

Lisa used to be a receptionist at Barlow High. She no longer works there and has been instrumental in Kip's recovery. Younger sister Jenna plays soccer for Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho.

Before, Kip wanted to be a firefighter. Now he's taking business courses and, like many 21-year-olds, isn't sure what he wants to do. His competitive spirit is quenched by the Portland Pounders, a 'quad rugby' team that placed seventh in the national competition last year. (There are about 50 such teams in the nation.)

Despite his progress, Kip says he 'doesn't think it's huge. I'm like, 'Great, let's go get some more.' '

The cost of Project Walk is a strain on the family, but one Lisa and Gordy are more than willing to take on. Because Kip was injured at age 18, he is covered under his parents' insurance policy, with the Oregon Health Plan as a backup.

Kip is aware of the skepticism. Some have told him he could have a house built with the money he's spending on Project Walk.

But he sees a difference between traditional physical therapy and Project Walk workouts. The former helps you adapt to life in a wheelchair, he says, and the latter helps you get out of it.

It's not for everybody, and Kip respects that. He keeps his goals to himself a lot of the time. But one day, maybe, with advances in stem cell research or through sheer determination and hard work, he says he'll surprise people. And he'll be physically in shape and ready to go should a new treatment become available.

For him, it's about health and, perhaps even more important, hope.

'You're not supposed to be folded up like this,' Kip says. 'You're supposed to stand up. You're not supposed to spend your life in a chair.'

On the Project Walk Web site (www.projectwalk.org), Kip tells his story in an audio voiceover. In it, he talks about his recovery.

'The doctors basically gave me a zero percent chance of ever walking again, ever. Of gaining any movement below my injury,' he says. 'They said it'd take a miracle, so, I think I found my miracle.'