ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Michael Wishnia won his second consecutive shot put national title on Friday at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was in a completely different state mentally and physically than when he first started the sport 15 months ago.
Wishnia was all smiles at Hamline University’s stadium after throwing 12.35 meters, which was well below his personal best of 13.89-meters but still good enough to finish first in the men’s seated shot put for athletes from the F34 and F54-57 sport classes.
But rewind to 2011, just after Wishnia’s right leg was injured in a combat explosion while serving as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant in Afghanistan, and smiles could seldom be found.
After leading over 700 patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former football and lacrosse player returned stateside without any feeling and hardly any flexibility in his right quad muscle. His mood was somber for quite some time after that.
“I was in a really bad place and was never happy when I got back, and Paralympic sport saved my life,” Wishnia said. “It literally saved my life.”
It was early 2014 when the Livingston, New Jersey, native picked up track and field seriously after learning about it at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
His massive frame and broad shoulders, covered in tattoos, are practically made for the throwing events, which he said appealed to him because they reminded him of the first sports ever played during the Neanderthal days.
Wishnia had his first taste of competition at last season’s Warrior Games before going on to win both the shot put and discus events at the U.S. championships. He will try to also defend his discus title Sunday morning.
He practiced at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, this past April and then set two American records at May’s IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, an event which doubled as the Desert Challenge Games. For that, he was awarded Team USA’s Best of May honors for top male athlete.
Wishnia has already easily hit the qualifying standards for both August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto and October’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
“If I can focus solely on my Paralympic career and still be a dad and father, that’s what I’d love to do for the next year,” Wishnia said. “There are some wounded warriors who just want to be out there to do it for fun, but I want to go to Rio 2016 and do as many Paralympics as I can do.”
Wishnia and his wife have “two little monkeys” at home, otherwise known as their 2- and 4-year-old sons.
He also introduces everyone he meets to his best friend, Sammie.
“She’s my service dog and she comes everywhere with me,” Wishnia said. “She’s helped me through everything. She’s there to help with my anxiety. She’s there to help me if I ever get upset. She loves to be loved by everybody.”
Wishnia’s hoping to start sharing his and Sammie’s story with the world to promote his Paralympic career ahead of Rio 2016, and he’s definitely going to be entailing his wife’s help to do so.
“Social media is the way of the world, but I’m not very good at it. That’s why I have my wife take care of it,” Wishnia chuckled. “I’ve been thinking about opening up my own YouTube channel with my videos to show others out there how to compete in seated shot put.”
He believes the new wave of American wounded warriors that has taken up Paralympic sport in recent years has a duty to pass along knowledge of the Paralympic Movement — including how-to videos and ways to get involved — to kids growing up with an impairment.
“We should take leadership roles like we did in the service by taking kids under our wings and helping them out,” Wishnia said. “Hopefully in a few years, we’ll be the ones mentoring others to take up para-sport.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.