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Paralympians excel with perseverance, optimism

NEW YORK (WOOD) — While the Simone Biles and Katie Ledeckys of the world will draw most of the headlines in Paris this summer, some of the most inspiring stories will play out at the Paralympic Games.

Justin Phongsavanh was an 18-year-old in Iowa when he went to get a hamburger. He got shot in a McDonald’s parking lot and was paralyzed from the waist down. Now he throws javelin for the U.S. Paralympic team and won a bronze medal in Tokyo. He has also earned two masters degrees.

He said his inspiration comes from “facing death.”

“When you go to get a burger, you don’t expect to be laying on the parking lot gasping for air. And how fast life can come get you. If you don’t live it, it’s not going to live it for you,” Phongsavanh said.

Steve Serio has his sights set on winning a third consecutive gold medal in wheelchair basketball. He was born with a benign spinal tumor that crushed his spine and paralyzed his lower extremities.

“I so distinctly remember the first time I sat in a basketball wheelchair. It was like my world expanded. All of a sudden, my world became about what I could do and slipped away from what I couldn’t do,” Serio said.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JUNE 20: Steve Serio of USA controls the ball during the IWBF Wheelchair Basketball World Championships 2022 Men’s Final match between USA and Great Britain on June 20, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JUNE 20: Steve Serio of USA controls the ball during the IWBF Wheelchair Basketball World Championships 2022 Men’s Final match between USA and Great Britain on June 20, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 15: Sitting Volleyball athlete Nicky Nieves poses for a portrait during the 2024 Team USA Media Summit at Marriott Marquis Hotel on April 15, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 15: Sitting Volleyball athlete Nicky Nieves poses for a portrait during the 2024 Team USA Media Summit at Marriott Marquis Hotel on April 15, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Nicky Nieves was born with one hand, but she was a standout volleyball player in high school. When she got to college, she was encouraged to try sit-down volleyball. At first, she was reluctant.

“I was like, OK,” she explained while shaking her head. “just because I wanted to be seen as a regular athlete.  I didn’t want to be seen in an adaptive lens. Once I tried it, I was hooked. I feel like it’s an equalizer for all, it does not discriminate. It’s hard for everybody,” Nieves said.

There are so many stories of athletes who have overcome hardship. Their perseverance and desire to conquer their disabilities is sure to inspire many as they continue their journey to Paris.

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