Barlow grad is a member of a national champion wheelchair rugby team and an up-and-coming real estate broker

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A decade after a skiing accident on Mount Hood left him in a wheelchair, Kip Johnson, a Damascus resident and Barlow High grad, is focused on how he can help newly injured people connect with sports and housing.

Kip Johnson’s life changed forever Dec. 21, 2003.

On his first warm-up of the day with the Sam Barlow High School ski team at Mt. Hood Skibowl, Johnson lost control on a hill, struck a tree and suffered a severe spinal cord injury.

With five broken vertebrae and ribs, Johnson became quadriplegic.

“Those words — ‘Your son broke his neck’ — make your knees buckle,” said Lisa Johnson, Kip’s mother.

Within a month, Johnson moved from intensive care to rehab at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. His aunt, a retired teacher, tutored him in the hospital for four months, allowing Johnson to complete his senior year of high school in April 2004 and return to school in a wheelchair.

The strong-as-an-ox 18-year-old, who had played a full season of football and threw javelin on the track team, lost 60 pounds and was hardly able to push himself across the gym floor.

“You walk around without a care in the world and then all of a sudden everybody treats you differently,” Johnson said of his classmates. “They didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know how to react.”

Almost 10 years later, Johnson, now 27, has launched a career in real estate as a broker with John L. Scott in Sandy and recently won the national wheelchair rugby championships with the Portland Pounders, a sweet victory after winning second place four years in a row.

Johnson joined the team just eight months after his accident and says it’s had a huge influence on his life.

“It’s definitely really big for freshly injured guys to get involved with a program like Pounders because it makes you realize life is still there,” Johnson said. “It makes you feel like you’re not disabled — that life is normal.”

A new sport

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: - Johnsons wheelchair rugby team, the Portland Pounders, won the national championship in Louisville, Ky., in early April.

Often, newly-injured athletes think they’ll never be able to compete again, but coach Ed Suhr was eager to involve Johnson in the Portland Pounders.

In fall 2004, Johnson spent five hours at a practice and fell in love with the sport.

“It’s always fun to be able to watch people get acclimated to a sport as both an athlete and a person,” Suhr said of injured athletes now in chairs. “It opens people’s eyes to other things — a lot more things. Sometimes it’s just that they become more aware of their bodies — that they’re stronger, fitter and better at simple things like transferring from the chair, but it adds to their confidence.”

A decade later, the Portland Pounders remains a passion of Johnson’s, and it’s a sport the whole family is involved with, traveling across the country and to Vancouver, B.C., for tournaments.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Lisa and Gordon Johnson are inspired by their son Kip's resilience after his skiing accident in 2003. Both are avid Portland Pounders fans, and Gordon maintains team equipment.

Johnson’s father, Gordon, manages all the equipment and acts as the mechanic for the Pounders, and Lars Mertens, a player from Belgium, lived with the Johnsons this past year.

“You could just tell we were back to life,” Lisa Johnson said. “It’s a whole new world he’s involved with. You have no idea about it when you’re a healthy, strong young kid. But there are athletes all over the world in chairs who are top-of-the-line athletes.”

What lies ahead

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: - Johnson is focused on building his real estate business in East County. He dreams of helping recently injured people and their families adapt their homes.

In whatever group he’s been new to in the past nine years, Johnson said people are not usually accustomed to seeing someone in a chair.

Instead of seeing it as a challenge, he sees it as an opportunity to make others aware of disabilities.

Johnson, a Damascus resident since age 4, became interested in real estate through family friend Marie Teune, of John L. Scott in Sandy. After receiving his associate degree in business from Mt. Hood Community College and earning his real estate license at the first of the year, Johnson is focused on building his business.

“I want to figure out how to market myself the best way and shape my business,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges families face when a relative is injured is how to adapt their home. Do they remodel? Do they sell their house?

The Johnsons kept Kip’s hospital bed in the dining room and living room for the longest time as his bedroom had been down three flights of stairs. Ultimately, they decided to build him an apartment room on the first floor, with easy access to his van.

“Having been through the situation and knowing what to expect when people come home, I would really like to help people transition their homes,” Johnson said. “I want to be able to help set them up with builders who remodel for accessibility.”

Johnson is also happy to mentor recently injured people, whether it’s working on housing or connecting them with an adapted sport they’ll love, such as hand-cycling.

Along with another season with the Portland Pounders ahead (the season runs September through April), Johnson is planning his third Hood to Coast with Oregon Disability Sports.

“Life can suck, but there are always things to do and have fun with,” Johnson said. “I want to be able to help people out a lot.”

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