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Near death spurs trainer to change people's lives

Paul Johnson, 56th Force Support Squadron Bryant Fitness Center fitness specialist supervisor, poses for a photo Aug. 21 in the weight room at the Luke Air Force Base Bryant Fitness Center. Johnson is a survivor of multiple accidents, one of which changed his life forever, spurring him to become a personal trainer.

Paul Johnson, 56th Force Support Squadron Bryant Fitness Center fitness specialist supervisor, poses for a photo Aug. 21 in the weight room at the Luke Air Force Base Bryant Fitness Center. Johnson is a survivor of multiple accidents, one of which changed his life forever, spurring him to become a personal trainer.

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. (AFNS) -- Looking at Paul Johnson, 56th Force Support Squadron fitness specialist supervisor, one sees a strong, muscular, fit man. But, he says he wasn't always that way. It was a near-death experience that spurred a decision in him to not only continue strength training but also change other people's lives by becoming a personal trainer. It was the summer before his senior year of high school in 1978 when Johnson woke up in the hospital. All he could remember were the moments leading up to the accident.

"I was driving when I fell asleep at the wheel, went off a mountain road and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital," he said. "The doctors recommended surgery in my neck and back, but I was afraid and hesitant."

The college that was recruiting Johnson for their track team saw the news of his accident and referred him to their sports physician. After meeting with the doctor, Johnson began attending physical therapy as an alternative to surgery. It wasn't easy, but Johnson successfully went through three months of rigorous physical therapy, which included strength training to fortify the muscles around his weak joints.

"After the therapy I was able to play sports again," he said. "And from the accident I learned that strength training really made all the difference in the world, since before therapy I never lifted a single weight."

His success with strength training in therapy prompted him to become a personal trainer to maintain his fitness and help others. What Johnson didn't know was his strength training and physical fitness would help save his life in future accidents, including one that occurred in 2009.

"I was riding my motorcycle and going about 45 mph when the car behind me failed to see me until it was too late," he said. "The driver ran me over with a minivan, cracking my helmet in half, breaking my clavicle and totaling my bike. I was really lucky, and I attribute my survival to strength training and being fit so my body could bounce back."

Johnson recovered after this second near-death experience and went on to participate in Luke's first bodybuilding competition in February 2010. It was there he decided to become a personal trainer at the Luke AFB Bryant Fitness Center.

"I always enjoyed training people but saw that the business of being a trainer was becoming more about money than teaching people the correct way of doing the exercises so they can do it on their own," he said. "When I came to Luke and saw the facility I was impressed and liked that it's about helping people understand how to reap the benefits and eventually be able to train on their own."

Ansel Bingham, 56th FSS Bryant Fitness Center operations manager, said Johnson is an outstanding trainer because he lives the lifestyle he teaches.

"Based on the physical fitness he's maintained and his knowledge, he is definitely an inspiration to others," Bingham said. "He's one of the best personal trainers we've had in years."

Although Johnson is now in a supervisory position at the fitness center, his work as a personal trainer still continues to impact his clients' lives today.

"I recently saw two of my clients from about a year and a half ago at the gym," he said. "I'm so proud of them because they still consistently workout four days a week, and that is the biggest reward, seeing people wanting to better themselves on their own."

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