Sep 16 2000 6:40AM ET
SYDNEY, Sept 16 (Reuters) - When Nancy Johnson was 17, she was struck by a mystery muscle-wasting illness and doctors were telling her to start thinking about life in a wheelchair.
Nine years on, on Saturday, Johnson won the first gold medal of the Sydney Olympics, attracting rare limelight to the sport of shooting with her victory in the women's 10 metres air rifle event.
Even the public relations specialists called in to repair the Olympic movement's tarnished image would have struggled to come up with a better first medallist than Johnson, with her bright smile, wholesome outlook and story of triumph over adversity.
"The doctors talked me up as a medical mystery because they never found out really what happened other than I had severe nerve damage and muscle atrophy in my left arm and left side," Johnson recalled after her win on Saturday.
"In the beginning, they indicated that they thought it was MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and that I'd be in a wheelchair within six months because it was such a progressive, fast deterioration.
"They said, well, forget shooting, forget anything that's gonna require for you to use both hands."
But after around six months, the bubbly American, originally from the suburban town of Downers Grove near Chicago, began regaining feeling on her left side and underwent a course of intensive physical therapy for a year to recover her strength.
Johnson, 26, appears to have just the sort of straightforward attitude required to restore faith in the Olympics after its recent history of doping scandals and corruption allegations.
"If you work hard enough at anything I think you can be good at it," she told reporters when asked to explain her success.
If Hollywood scriptwriters ever get hold of Johnson's story, they won't have to add much.
It even comes complete with a romantic interest -- her husband Ken is also a top-class shooter and takes part in the men's 10m air rifle event on Monday.
He was on hand at Sydney's Cecil Park shooting range on Saturday to offer expert advice to his wife, who said it has been crucial in her victory.
The U.S. Army also put in an appearance, having practically adopted the petite horticulture graduate, who works in the gardening department of a home improvements store.
Johnson said the army's generosity in letting her practise on one of their ranges has also been vital.
"It's been really instrumental because there aren't many places in our country to train," she said.
U.S. team shooting coach Dan Durben said Johnson had achieved so much partly because she had shown the discipline and determination required to invest hours of physical training.
"I think one of the things that Nancy has is a very, very strong determination," he said.
"She's very good at setting very high goals and then really setting
out a plan to go after them. She's willing to put in the hard work."