Overcoming Adversity and Achieving Greatness
A routine stop at Mcdonald's would change eighteen-year-old Justin Phongsavanh’s life forever. Justin and a friend were ambushed by an Iraq war veteran who attributed the assault to post-traumatic stress disorder. The assailant was apparently upset by the jovial behavior of the two teens. A bullet punctured Justin’s lung and a fragment became embedded in his spine. He immediately knew that he was paralyzed.
Adversity is nothing new to Justin. Born in Iowa his life got off to a rough start. He was only two years old when his parents, one Laotian and one Caucasian, were incarcerated. After bouncing around between relatives he landed in the Iowa foster care system. Justin found his forever home when he was adopted by Tamera Shinn. Tamera was in an abusive relationship and raised Justin as a single mother after divorcing her then husband. She worked twelve-hour shifts at a tire factory in order to provide for the two of them. Justin was an energetic kid and his mother directed that energy into sports including; wrestling, football, rugby and track. He holds records in the shot put and discus at his high school and was an All-Conference football defensive end before the shooting..
After four months in the hospital, Justin returned home. Knowing that his dream of becoming an electrician was no longer feasible he decided to enroll in college. It was mid-semester, so he was unable to start. Looking for something to occupy his time Justin joined a local wheelchair basketball team. Having little experience in basketball he soon switched to his former sport of Track and Field throwing events. Two organizations, Adaptive Sports Iowa and the Challenged Athletes Foundation helped him secure a throwing chair.
Justin competes in the F54 Paralympic competitive class which consists of wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injuries. He tried shot put and discus but found it difficult to compete given that his level of function was below most athletes in the class and settled on the javelin. He won gold at the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Nationals and relocated to Chula Vista, CA, in 2019 to train. Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, is home to an Elite Athlete Training Center (formerly the U.S. Olympic Training Center) where many prospective Olympians and Paralympians train. Justin won another gold medal at the 2020 Parapan American Games in Lima and took fourth at the world championship in Dubai. During the 2020/2021 U.S. Paralympic Team trials he shattered the world record throwing a distance of 33.29 meters and punched his ticket to Tokyo as a member of Team U.S.A.
During his Paralympic debut, Justin secured a bronze medal with a throw of 31.09 just .26 meters behind Iranian Amiri Hamed's gold medal throw of 31.35 meters. Justin holds a Bachelors's Degree in accounting and is currently pursuing a Masters's Degree. He coaches other disabled athletes through The Challenged Athletes Foundation.
About this article
Information for this article comes from: www.teamusa.org, The Challenged Athletes Foundation, the San Deigo Union-Tribune , Iowa Public Radio, We are Iowa and the Times of San Diego, Profile photos courtesy of Justin Phongsavanh.