Paralympian Justin Phongsavanh not letting paralysis stop him from chasing gold in Tokyo

·6 min read

Justin Phongsavanh wasn't always concerned with meters, centimeters and breaking world records.

At 18 years old, he was an electrician's apprentice in Ankeny, Iowa. But on Oct. 24, 2015, he was shot and left paralyzed from the waist down, and his outlook on life shifted.

Soon after, he was throwing javelins, breaking records and is now in Tokyo preparing for his first Paralympics. His first event, the F54 seated javelin throw, is set for Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Phongsavanh was at a McDonald's with a friend, Nick Culver. They joked around, Culver pretended to throw a tantrum and Phongsavanh filmed it. As the two friends were leaving, Gabriel Coco, a 36-year-old Iraq veteran, pistol-whipped Culver in the head and shot at him five times.

Coco then shot Phongsavanh twice. The first shot hit his thigh. The second shot went through his right arm and into his torso where it lodged into his vertebrae and severed his spine.

"That's when I just plummeted," Phongsavanh said. "I tried to sit up and I tried to run away from the guy who was shooting at me and I couldn't move. So I accepted my fate."

Justin Phongsavanh broke the men’s F54 javelin throw world record with a distance of 33.29 meters (109.2 feet) during the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track and Field in June.
Justin Phongsavanh broke the men’s F54 javelin throw world record with a distance of 33.29 meters (109.2 feet) during the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track and Field in June.

Phongsavanh was in the hospital for four months, including rehabilitation. Phongsavanh wasn't consumed by his fate handed to him. He decided he had no choice but to move on, and adaptive sports was the avenue he knew would help him better deal with his paralysis.

Turning to sports during rocky upbringing

He had a rocky childhood. Phongsavanh's biological parents were in and out of prison, he was in the foster system and was eventually adopted. The trouble, however, continued as Phongsavanh's adopted father physically abused him and his brother until he was 13.

Sports anchored him. He started wrestling at six and then bounced from one sport to the other. Phongsavanh, who grew to be 6-foot-2, also played football, rugby and track and field.

He was all-conference as a defensive end in football and wrestled at 182, 195 and 220 pounds. In track and field, Phongsavanh threw the discus and shot put, with records still standing at his high school. He also ran the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Back then, however, he never had his sights set on the Olympics. And he'd never even heard of the Paralympic games.

After the shooting, it was never about how he was going to recover from being shot, but what sport he would use.

He first tried wheelchair basketball and it wasn't a fit. He didn't shoot and dribble basketballs growing up, he wrestled and tackled others.

Through Adaptive Sports Iowa and the Challenged Athletes foundation, Phongsavanh rediscovered track and field. It was through this organization that he was provided a throwing chair, a $3,000 device deigned to stabilize Phongsavanh's lower body while he throws.

Because of adaptive sports, he found a community.

"It gave me a team. It gave me friends. It gave me connections and resources," Phongsavanh said. "When I think of what sports has done to me, it's grounded me it's given given me a foundation."

He tried throwing discus and shot put but he realized he would be at a disadvantage in the events because competitors in his classification had more function than he did. That wasn't a concern for the javelin.

He would go on to win his first national title in 2017 and was named 2017 Iowa Adaptive Sports Athlete of the Year.

Training for the Paralympics

Since January 2019, Phongsavanh has lived at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California with his white-haired golden retriever, Morgan.

Morgan is trained to pick things up because Phongsavanh doesn’t have abdominal muscles. She also pulls Phongsavanh up steep hills. But the two might as well be conjoined. He goes everywhere with Morgan and he introduces himself as "the guy with the dog."

"They are inseparable," Bethany Nelson, Phongsavanh's girlfriend, said. "When they're apart, she'll cry."

Phongsavanh moved to California to chase a dream, although he returned home to Iowa during the pandemic.

He and Nelson would travel to a relative's home to throw into a cornfield. When he trained, he would warm-up by throwing weighted balls. Morgan always fetched them for him. Then Nelson would line the cones up, lining them up by order of his personal record, what he needed to throw to qualify for the Paralympics and the world record.

Nelson usually nudged the cones a few inches further so Phongsavanh, however vexing it may be, would have to throw further.

Phongsavanh would record each throw so he could send videos to his coach in California. It was frustrating not to have the instant feedback. However, he would jot detailed notes in a black, spiral-bound notebook with a cover decorated with Post-It notes that have motivational messages like "Embrace the suck", "Why did you start?" and "Don't give up." Anything that felt right or wrong with a throw was inscribed into the pages.

The pandemic didn't stop Phongsavanh's dreams to become a Paralympian. It gave him more time to prepare.

Each time Phongsavanh competed, he was followed by an entourage that included Nelson, foster mother Tamera Shinn and Craig Ball, the electrician Phongsavanh apprenticed under before the shooting.

But because of restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Phongsavanh was alone at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track and Field in Minneapolis in June.

The 33.29 meters (109.2 feet) he threw the javelin established a world record.

In Iowa, Nelson and Morgan were glued to the Trials. However, the broadcast didn't show Phongsavanh's throw live. It was only after the distance was measured as a world record that they showed a replay.

The camera caught Phongsavanh smiling and clapping his hands before raising his arms in celebration. Nelson burst into tears and then bounced on her bed while Morgan howled.

Moving on from shooting

Phongsavanh isn't worried about thinking of what could have been had he never been shot. He's come to terms with what happened.

He used to be angry at Coco, especially after he was not convicted of attempted murder. Coco initially faced a maximum of 25 years in prison for the attempted murder charge, the Des Moines Register reported. However, the jury convicted the Army veteran of assault with intent to inflict serious injury, a Class D felony that is punishable for up to five years in prison.

Coco, who admitted he had been drinking that night, said he had a traumatic brain injury and struggled with PTSD after Iraq.

Coco served less than two years in prison and was released in August 2019.

But that's the past. He's found a new purpose in life. Adaptive sports allowed Phongsavanh to travel the world. It's given him a new community, it's led to Morgan and Nelson. He graduated from college with a degree in accounting and is studying for an MBA.

Right now, Phongsavanh is in Tokyo competing that the top of his sport in a competition that years ago he didn't know existed. He's thousands of miles from California, where he has become into a world-class para athlete and even further from the corn fields in Iowa where he honed his skill.

As with the Paralympic trials, he'll be competing alone with his entourage watching him compete for a gold medal from the comfort of their homes.

But Phongsavanh left the Trials hungry. And only a gold medal can satisfy his cravings.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paralympian Justin Phongsavanh aiming for javelin gold after paralysis