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John Manison during physical therapy at Kennedy Krieger. Photo courtesy Kennedy Krieger.

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Online Exclusive posted Monday, October 1, 2012 - 10:22am

One Pennsylvania teen overcomes the limits of a rare disease.

Charlie Chaplin once said, “The basic essential of a great actor is that he loves himself in acting.” It could be said that the basic essential of a great athlete is that he loves to compete. For John Manison, both are true.

The Pennsylvania resident has always been a “natural” in front of an audience. He saw his first Broadway Show just last year and had the privilege of meeting Jim Belushi. This was an experience that only reaffirmed his desire to perform, despite having lost the use of his legs in 2009.

Manison was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder affecting one in 4 million people per year that occurs when the immune system abnormally attacks the spinal cord. While it’s unclear as to the exact cause of the disorder, scientists theorize viral infections or abnormal immune reactions could be to blame.  

To help combat the effects of his disease, Manison was referred to Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury in Baltimore, Md., to begin an intensive and innovative rehabilitation program that helps paralyzed individuals regain function. There he was introduced to an activity that would soon open his eyes to a new adventure and take him far beyond the confines of physical therapy, his acting career, or the limits of his disease.

With the resounding support of his high school coach and the Kennedy Krieger staff, swimming quickly became his newest passion. It didn’t take Manison long to earn his classification as a disabled athlete, and he is currently training to compete in the 2016 Pan American Games in Mexico.

His most recent competition came during the international meet in Ohio where he took first place in the 50m free and 50m breaststroke. It was Manison’s first time competing against other disabled athletes, but that experience was enough to help set his sights on a gold medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.

“I’ve always been trained by able-bodied coaches,” says Manison. “As I progress, I’m seeking a wheelchair athlete coach who knows the abilities and tactics of working and training a disabled athlete.”

It’s no surprise that aqua therapy became one of Manison’s favorite therapies and was instrumental in his transition to competitive swimming.  As with many other challenges in his life, the daily commitment to swimming and physical therapy pushed Manison’s strength and resolve.

“There wasn’t a disabled swim program or the equipment at the high school level, so we had to do things a little differently,” says Manison. “My teammates would carry me to the stand and help me out at the end of my heats.”

It wasn’t only the team that had to make adjustments. “The judges didn't recognize the abilities of a wheelchair swimmer,” says Manison. “It left them uncertain of a wheelchair athlete’s limits and how the public might perceive them.”

But those prejudices didn’t defer Manison’s desire to swim and compete. A typical day for him consists of swim practice, classes, and then a grueling five to six hours of physical therapy. “I’d go home from Kennedy completely spent and exhausted,” says Manison. “They work me to my limits, which in itself is another training session.”

Part of Manison’s training regimen consists of swimming a series of 6k laps each day, extended 1k warm-up sprints, and an extensive breathing exercise to help build his lung capacity. Once that’s finished, he performs a couple of 500-yard cool down laps.

Aquatic therapy is unique in that it allows the buoyant force of water to support approximately 90% of a person’s weight and provides a distinctive therapeutic environment. Patients can perform activities in water that would be impossible with traditional therapies and provides the patterned stimulation needed to promote growth of neural cells.

“The disease affects my ability to walk at the L1 level, making it necessary to use forearm crutches,” says Manison. “Many of the Kennedy Krieger physical therapists (PT) are swimmers, and it was through aquatic therapy that really sparked my interest in swimming. That, and the encouragement from my high school coach, really intrigued me to try it out.”

Manison recently enrolled at Ashland University to explore a career in theater. “I’d never forgive myself if I don't,” says Manison. “They offer the top BA program in the country, which gives me more flexibility to expand into other avenues, and they have an excellent division 2 swim program.”

Manison isn’t just bragging about his alma mater either. They have won three of their last five division championships. He hopes to help the team add to that roster of championships and plans to swim at the varsity level as the school’s first disabled athlete.

From the pool to physical therapy to acting, Manison doesn’t seem to have an off switch. His latest endeavor will take him out of the pool and onto the streets of Maryland for the Baltimore Running Festival.

Manison will be joining Team Kennedy Krieger, which is comprised of a special group of parents, patients, staff, and supporters joining to raise funds for Kennedy Krieger and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury. The team hopes to draw attention to the importance of providing equipment and opportunities for adaptive sports.

Through his therapy at Kennedy Krieger, Manison regained feeling below the level of injury, and what started with him walking short distances with forearm crutches has led to a 65% restoration of the use of his legs.

“I could not have been as successful without my amazing PTs, Stephanie and Sara,” says Manison. “I’m grateful to my school therapists, coach, family, and friends who have moved me through the various hurdles to progress my success.”

For Manison, the basic essential of a great life is that he loves himself living it, and it transcends to those around him.

More on John Manison can be found on YouTube discussing his participation in the Baltimore Running Festival.

Learn more about Kennedy Krieger’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury’s unique approach called Activity Based Restorative Therapies (ABRT).

In spinal cord injury, the connection between the brain and body is lost — the brain can no longer tell the body to move, and the neural cells no longer have the patterned activity they need to grow and differentiate. ABRT, under the direction of physicians and therapists, helps patients with spinal cord injuries perform activities that prompt remaining cells to “remember” how to move while encouraging the growth of new nervous system cells.


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