In 2015, Justin Phongsavanh was a 4-sport star in high school in Iowa with a promising athletic career in front of him. One night he went to McDonald’s for a bite.
“My buddy and I were just trying to get some food before we went out camping for the night. We sat down, had some burgers, and when we left is when everything changed,” says Phongsavanh.
They were noisy and having fun, as teenagers will do. A man inside didn’t like it.
“So, he decided to take it upon himself to punish us, essentially.”
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He pulled out a gun, pistol-whipped Justin’s friend, and held it to Justin’s head. The man’s wife came out of the restaurant and convinced him to stop.
For a moment.
“It wasn’t before we got back to the car that he started shooting. He hit me twice, missed me once, then shot my buddy twice.”
His friend turned out to be OK. Justin, however, knew his life was never going to be the same.
“It was immediate. Once the second bullet hit me, I was standing, and the next thing you know it was an unexplainable feeling of my whole spinal cord shaking. Immediately I crumpled down to the floor, fell, tried to get up and run, couldn’t move. That’s when I knew I was paralyzed.”
The shooter dropped his wife at home then drove to the police station to turn himself in.
Justin underwent several surgeries. Friends and family filled his hospital room almost constantly, but only he could choose his life’s new path.
“It was the moments when I was alone, where I had a lot of thinking. It came down to two options: you can make the most of this life and see what it can be or you can sit here and wallow in self-pity and let everything consume you. So, I said let’s give it a try. Let’s see what we can do in this life.”
The athlete in him won out. After trying wheelchair basketball and realizing it’s not his thing, he asked the organizer what else was out there.
“He was like, you ever heard of track and field Paralympics? I was like, never. So, he gave me a throwing chair, a shot put and a discus, and I just started throwing in my backyard. Next thing you know I got invited out and scouted to national competitions throughout the country. In my first ever meet I believe I broke every national record in every throwing and powerlifting event for my age and my class. So, I was like, this is fun. I like winning. I wanted to be the best in the world at that point so I kept training and after that everything started taking off.”
This year, Justin is focused full-time on the javelin, mostly because it’s a sport he’d never competed in before and he needed a new challenge. After just two years Justin is a few centimeters away from breaking the world record. He’s moved full-time to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista to reach that goal, and the dream of wearing the USA across his chest.
“It’s great to be able to represent the country on a global scale. To me, it means everything. With everything that’s happening in the world it’s nice to show diversity not only in the sports of the Paralympics, but also the camaraderie that we can have with other countries. Even if they are my competition, we can still respect one another and treat each other with integrity.”
That fateful night nearly six years ago almost ended Justin’s life. Instead, he’s living a life even greater than he knew possible.
“It is a blessing in disguise. There are a lot of downfalls but when it comes down to it, it’s the cards you’re dealt. This is the situation you’re in and you have to be comfortable with it. When you start being comfortable with it then you can start living life at a higher level than what you probably could have before. There is no expectation for you outside of the expectations you put on yourself … and that should be limitless.”
Justin Phongsavanh is living proof of how much we can achieve, even through extreme adversity.