Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic: Enjoy the ride
“As a physically challenged individual, being active is very important from a mental standpoint”– Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic
For Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic – a Green Beret who has endured some of the most extreme physical and mental challenges as a soldier in the Army’s elite special forces – giving up when facing a hopeless situation was not an option.
On September 11, 1976 Johnny’s life changed as he began a 16-day ordeal that would cause him to lose his left leg below the knee.
While driving through a remote forest in Washington State, Johnny was negotiating a hairpin turn over a bridge. After leaving the bridge, he veered onto the shoulder of the road and shortly thereafter the shoulder was washed out. Car and driver plunged 150 feet into a steep ravine. Johnny’s left foot was pinned against the dashboard by a tree root where he remained for more than two weeks. As a trained medic with the U.S. Army Green Berets, he knew he could survive without food, but not water. He devised a way to cast his shirt in a nearby stream, soaking it and reeling it in to squeeze water into his mouth.
Everyday he tried to free himself from his metal prison and hoped someone would find him. When he realized gangrene had set into his foot, he knew he had to release himself. With intense resolve he chipped away at the tree with a rock and freed his foot. Exhausted, he dragged himself 150 feet to the road above where a truck driver found him and called for help. Later that week at a Portland, Oregon hospital doctors amputated his leg below the knee.
Johnny’s loss, however, didn’t stop him from being active and helping others to pursue a healthy lifestyle with sports and recreation.
“As a physically challenged individual, being active is very important from a mental standpoint,” said Johnny who was fitted with an artificial foot, but wondered if he’d ever ski again.
“For me – and my sense is a lot of people – the first thought that went through my mind was: What am I ever going to be able to do again?”
The first adaptive sport Johnny tried was skiing. “I started going down the hill and realized I can do this just like anybody else,” he said.
Since then he’s tried dozens of adaptive sports and participated in hundreds of races and events for mostly able-bodied athletes and some physically challenged athletes. Getting involved in adaptive sports and recreation activities, however, wasn’t easy.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, there wasn’t a significant support system and outreach for individuals with physical challenges,” said Johnny. “Now, we have more robust opportunities and resources like SportsNet for sports and fitness.”
Johnny, deputy director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Office of Technology Transfer, volunteers with many organizations that offer mentoring and recreation opportunities for disabled veterans. During the past 5 years, Johnny has invested much of his time and energy with SportsNet, not only as a board member, but also as a volunteer. Johnny puts his heart and soul into helping people with disabilities get active, especially with adaptive cycling.
During the summer in Rochester, SportsNet holds a variety of free riding clinics where Johnny helps participants determine the best bike and fit. There are a variety of adaptive cycles to choose from including: 3-wheel upright hand, pedal, and tandem pedal cycles.
“Cycling is one of the most popular forms of outdoor recreation,” said Anita O’Brien, SportsNet Manager. “It’s a great way for anyone with or without a disability to enjoy the outdoors, improve cardiovascular fitness, and socialize with friends and family.”
Adaptive cycling is truly a multi-disability sport with many adaptations. The hand- cycle is one of the most widely practiced forms of adaptive cycling because it enables riders with a lower-limb mobility impairment (spinal cord, cerebral palsy (CP), and multiple sclerosis (MS)) to propel a 3-wheeled cycle using their arms.
Johnny adds: “When you start riding a bike, or playing basketball, or kicking a soccer ball it makes you feel like you’re not challenged. To me that is one of the huge effects of someone who is physically challenged getting back into recreation.”
Johnny especially gets a thrill from seeing first-timers on a bike – the smiles, laughter, and positive body signals make their joy obvious.
“It doesn’t matter who I put on a bike,” said Johnny. “Whether or not they’ve been on a bike before, it’s the thing they spend their whole week waiting to do.”
His advice to others? Enjoy the ride.
Individuals and families can participate in a weekly, guided ride along the winding Genesee River and Erie Canal pathways. To see SportsNet’s upcoming adaptive cycling clinics and weekly rides, download our adaptive cycling flyer and registration form.