Johnny Holland is a living testament that there’s no room for excuses in the midst of full and joyous lives.
Holland, 58, is originally from Fayetteville, and has been a Goldsboro resident for more than 25 years. A retired Army veteran, Holland was left paralyzed from the waist down following a car accident in 1987 that caused injuries to his C6 and C7 vertebrae.
Rather than growing bitter or questioning why life had dealt him the unfortunate circumstances he was left facing, Holland began to explore opportunities available to individuals with disabilities. What initially started with a hesitant foray into wheelchair basketball, has grown into an eye popping list of athletic events that has spanned more than 30 years.
“I ran into a guy who told me about basketball, so I went out there and tried that out,” Holland said. “It grew from there to do doing basketball, rugby, table tennis, field events, golf, you name it.”
During his career as a wheelchair athlete Holland became involved in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Holland got connected with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games through his affiliation with the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“Every year they hold the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and they’re held in a different state,” Holland said. “We have veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and the Space Force. We have people from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Great Britain and Guam.”
In early July of this year, Holland traveled to Portland, Oregon, where he participated in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games for the 32nd year. Holland won gold medals in bowling and table tennis, and a silver medal in billiards. Holland also played on a wheelchair softball team that finished fourth. He was also named to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games All-Star team.
For his accomplishments in Portland, Holland was named the City of Goldsboro Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities Spotlight for the Month of July.
“When I first started (at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games) there were a lot of veterans that guided me through the process,” Holland said. “I try to pass it along to veterans. It’s just like being in the military. It’s one big family, but when we compete, we compete and talk trash to each other.”
Throughout his 32 years of competition at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Holland has participated in weightlifting, rugby, table tennis, bowling and billiards. Holland has won over 200 medals, mostly gold, along with several silver and bronze.
“In my early years of lifting weights (at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games), I was what they called a Super Quad (quadriplegic),” Holland said. “I just had country boy strength, so when I lifted weights my closest competitors were a hundred or a couple hundred pounds away. So my max one year was 425. One year, I was in Denver, and I felt something in my elbow so I had to give it up. Then I started doing more one-handed sporting events.”
Over the past four years, Holland has participated in a bowling tour for disabled athletes, that has allowed him to travel all over the country. Holland’s average bowling score hovers around 110, but the camaraderie and the lifelong friendships he’s formed, are just as valuable as his accomplishments on the lanes. He is also a member of a billiards tour, a bass fishing tour and Holland regularly plays golf and tennis.
In early August, Holland traveled to Crestwood, Illinois to play in the Wheelchair Softball World Series. Holland played on a team comprised of military veterans that had the opportunity to compete against Japan, the defending champions.
“In our second game we played the world champions Japan,” Holland said. “They were super talented. They’re world champions for a reason. They beat us 20-6, but we were the first team to score six runs on them. It was a loss, but it was a win for us. It was a great experience.”
Never one to turn down an opportunity to experience a new sport or chase a memory, Holland has traveled all over the country, and the world, trying one adventure after another. Holland has added sailing, kayaking, surfing, rock climbing, bicycling and pickle ball to his resume. He has also traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to compete in a pool tournament.
“Wheelchair surfing was different,” Holland said. “I couldn’t picture in my mind surfing, but we went out to La Jolla beach, and they had a million volunteers out there. As a (quadriplegic) I can either balance on my knees or just lay on my stomach and balance on the board. They’ll push you out a ways, and when the wave comes you just ride it. It was wild, but it was fun.”
Without question the story that best encapsulates Holland’s refusal to be defined by his reliance on a wheelchair, is his trip to Virginia Beach in June of 2022 to try his hand at skydiving. After passing on the opportunity to jump out of a plane roughly 20 years earlier, Holland wasn’t about to let a second chance go by.
“That was probably the wildest thing I ever did in my life,” Holland said. “Back when I was playing basketball and I had first started in Fayetteville, they were trying to set a record for the most people with disabilities doing a jump. Some of my friends did it, I chickened out. This time, a guy from Veterans and Athletes United called me and told me they had a spot. The scariest part was when they call your name to get harnessed up. Once you come out of the plane it’s like we were just floating. It’s just so peaceful.”
Beyond his captivating stories, the gold medals, world travels and relationships built as a wheelchair athlete, Holland hopes his enduring legacy is one of inspiration and perseverance. Holland’s message to anyone with a physical disability, or perhaps simply a perspective that limits their ability, is to never lose sight of just what they’re capable of.
“I would tell them to never give up for one,” Holland said. “Take the phrase ‘I can’t,’ out of their vocabulary, and don’t let their disability define who they are.”