Paralympian Justin Phongsavanh is unhindered by paralyzing incident, shatters world record and aims for gold in Tokyo

Paralympian Justin Phongsavanh is unhindered by paralyzing incident, shatters world record and aims for gold in Tokyo
Bryan Ke
August 23, 2021
Meet Justin Phongsavanh, the 24-year-old record-breaking Paralympian who is set to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games for Team USA.
Record-breaking trial: Phongsavanh, from Chula Vista, Calif., 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 on June 19, according to Team USA.
  • “My performance was fantastic, and a better result than I could have ever imagined,” Phongsavanh said. “It was an incredible experience and everything worked out well.”
  • Although the report did not specify the previous holder, Guinness World Records specifies Aleksei Kuznetsov was the former F54 men’s world record holder. The Russian Paralympian scored 29.91 meters (98.1 feet) at the 2016 IPC European Championships in Grosseto, Italy.
Permanent paralysis: Phongsavanh’s life changed when he and his friend Nikolas Culver were shot by Army veteran Gabriel John Coco, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), at a parking lot of a McDonald’s in Ankeny, Iowa, on Oct. 15, 2015, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
  • Phongsavanh was shot twice during the incident, which left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Phongsavanh spent nearly four months in the hospital and rehab before his release on Feb. 14, 2016. He received sports medicine post-care.
  • Coco initially faced a maximum of 25 years in prison for the attempted murder charge, the Des Moines Register reported. However, the jury later settled and charged the Army veteran with assault with intent to inflict serious injury, a Class D felony that is punishable for up to five years in prison.
  • Phongsavanh allegedly heard Coco say, “Enjoy the wheelchair,” as he was being escorted outside the courtroom, Team USA reported.
  • Phongsavanh spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune and said he gave himself a deal:  “A: I could give up and leave this life or wallow in self-pity, live a minimalist life and not do anything extraordinary. Or B: I can get out of my comfort zone, grab life by the horns and live the best life I can.”
  • “I figured option A would always be there, but if I never try for option B, I’ll never know what I missed,” he added. “So let’s see what I can get out of this life.”
Road to Paralympics: Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Phongsavanh had a tough time growing up. His Laotian and white parents were sent to prison when he was only 2 years old, so he had to move around and live with different relatives over the span of three years.
  • He eventually ended up in the Iowa foster care system, where he met his future mother, Tamera Shinn. She divorced her abusive husband when Phongsavanh was 12.
  • His journey to becoming a Paralympian started when he contacted Adaptive Sports Iowa following the life-changing incident.
  • Phongsavanh, a four-sport varsity athlete at Ankeny Centennial High School, entered his first adaptive track and field event in the Midwest in 2016 and broke records in several sports, including shotput, discus, javelin and power-lifting.
  • Phongsavanh won the gold medal at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field national championship the following year. He also took home silver medals at the Arizona Grand Prix and the Grossetto Grand Prix in Italy and placed fourth in two world competitions in 2019.
  • He moved to Chula Vista that same year to train with Team USA at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
  • Phongsavanh also volunteers for the San Diego nonprofit Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which provides $5 million in grants each year to “disabled youth and adults for athletic training, equipment, entry fees and travel,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Featured Image via Challenged Athletes Foundation (left), paralympicthrower (right)
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