A former All-American track star turned hero doctor has dedicated his life to helping others, working with adaptive athletes after suffering his own life-altering spinal cord injury nearly 10 years ago.
Feranmi Okanlami, the director of Disability Services and Adaptive Sports at the University of Michigan, has always strived for excellence and despite a severe setback in 2013 that would have left most unable to walk or stand, he has defied the odds one step at a time.
"Feranmi has always been a child that made us proud," Okanlami's mother Bunmi told "Good Morning America." "It wasn't just that he was good at school, but that he would get the awards for personality -- he was an all American athlete."
"He was getting close to achieving everything that he dreamt that he would be," she continued. "He had gone to medical school, he got into a top orthopedic residence surgery program like he wanted to and he was living his best life."
However, the Stanford graduate, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Indiana, almost saw his dreams derailed when he suffered a spinal cord injury at a pool party in 2013.
"His cervical injury was high enough that most people who have that are not expected to ever be able to walk or stand," his mother explained. "They will say, 'Oh, you are quadriplegic, you can't do that.' And he will say, 'why can't we try?' And so at every stage throughout his rehab, he continued to push."
His son Alex told "GMA" that "being able to have that accident and then be able to get back on his feet and keep doing what he loves -- he inspires me by not giving up."
Okanlami eventually became a physician and has since continued to change the narrative around living with a disability. He started with physical therapy and getting active, coining the catchphrase "disabusing disability."
"Dr. O was a high performance athlete -- but it wasn't until that he acquired a disability that he then learned about adaptive sport," his colleague Erik Robeznieks, assistant director of adaptive sports at the University of Michigan, told "GMA." "He attributes access to sport as one of the key reasons that he was able to find the his new passions."
At the University of Michigan, Okanlami has made it his mission to build the adaptive sports and fitness program to inspire students like wheelchair tennis athlete Caiden Baxter and others to find their joy again.
"I love being able to show people that people in chairs and with disabilities are able to play high level athletics and I love the fact that I'm able to play sports period," Baxter said. "It's because he has shown me that that's possible."
Okanlami has also advocated for equity and inclusion for people with disabilities to remind everyone that the sky is the limit.
"It starts with a dream and a vision and Dr. O's vision is understanding that he wants access for more people," Jessica Wynne, head wheelchair basketball coach, told "GMA."
Robeznieks added that over the last couple of years working together, he has "really gained an appreciation and insight that I'm working with someone that is and is going to change the world."
Dr. Robert Ernst, director of student life at the university, said Okanlami "is such an important voice in support of the community of individuals with disabilities. He makes us a better place because of that."
Okanlami's mother, meanwhile, said it was her son's resilience and faith that "allowed him to take an injury and an accident that really could have dug him into a big hole" and helped him turn it "into a launching pad, from which he has launched all kinds of other opportunities to help people and to inspire people."
On Thursday morning "Good Morning America" surprised Okanlami on campus in Ann Arbor with $1 million from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which is committed to changing the world for those living with spinal cord injuries and the definition of what is possible.
"Disability is not inability."— Good Morning America (@GMA) October 20, 2022
"Dr. O" has made it his mission to build the adaptive sports and fitness program at the University of Michigan.
Watch @robinroberts surprise him with 1 MILLION DOLLARS! https://t.co/GcQdf2xqXO pic.twitter.com/gPfV9iWoCs
"This is not a me thing, this is an us thing," Okanlami said surrounded by colleagues, family and friends. "The fact that they were able to orchestrate this somehow amidst all of the other things they've been doing -- through COVID, through family deaths, through injury, through sickness -- so the emotion is about every single person here and those that aren't here, those at Michigan, those at other institutions and in other country, those on other continents with and without disabilities that have supported us to get to where we are."
He added, "It is beyond words."
He also thanked the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, saying their support has reached "not just our program but individuals with spinal cord injuries from all over the place."
"'Disabusing disability' was a trademark that I coined a couple years ago to try to demonstrate that disability doesn't mean inability," he said. "Until I started to move life on the other side of the stethoscope with my spinal cord injury I did not realize how ableist our world was, how inaccessible the world was and how I was unintentionally complicit to this world and met all these people with disabilities that have been doing amazing things."
He called disability "a fabric in the world of diversity that makes us all have our unique contributions we can make -- instead of being limited based on what we cannot, we need to be given the access to show what we can."