Justin Widhalm competes at the Paracycling World Championships on March 24, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro.
Army veteran Justin Widhalm was severely injured during his time in Iraq, and his path to recovery was tumultuous and painful. What helped above all was sport, which gave him the freedom he was craving and the pride of wearing the red, white and blue once more. This Veterans Day weekend, the para-cyclist shares how the opportunity to become a Paralympian changed his life — and helped him discover a new sense of purpose.
Joining the military was a lifelong dream. I was born at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, my father did 27 years in the Army, and it was something I molded my life around. I chose the sport of wrestling because it was combative, and I knew that I needed to know how to do that. I attended college for education because I knew that to be a good leader, you had to teach.
The Army for me was a no-brainer. It was kind of the family business. The reasons that I joined were, first off, immense pride, but then also just to be a part of something greater than myself.
While I was in the Army, I served two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was wounded in my second tour in a fall from a helicopter. I was told I would never walk again and that my life was basically over.
When I returned from deployment wounded, I was seeking something that would help me get back to normalcy. The process was just long and depressing and it literally made me try to overdose, just because I was in so much pain. One doctor told me, “Your brain injury’s not gonna repair, it’s not gonna get any better,” and a mental health professional said, “Your PTSD isn’t gonna get any better,” and another doctor said, “You’re not gonna walk again.” I had these crutches that I had to use every day for everything.
In my recovery, there was a moment I call the “Pop!” moment, when I finally pulled my head out and heard the pop. I was talking to a Vietnam veteran about my injury, and I’d been so conditioned that anytime anyone asked what happened, I would wait for the pause and the “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
This Vietnam veteran turned me to the positive. He was like, “Wow, that pilot was awesome, he saved your life.” And it took me from that moment of feeling like I was a victim in all of this stuff to being a survivor, and survivors move on.
Once I got put on a handcycle, it helped so much because they told me I couldn’t do it. I had to learn to ride an upright bike, and then I went to riding an upright bike in my basement and having to wear a helmet because I kept falling off the dang thing… that killed the pride. But the core strength required and the sequencing of muscle movements and everything that’s necessary for cycling was exactly what I needed, as was the freedom I felt when I was able to get outside.
I couldn’t run fast, I couldn’t run, period. But I got on the bike and it was just… freedom. To me, it seemed like I had to keep going.
In my last eight months in the Army, I set my sights on the Paralympic Games. I actually got an internship with the U.S. Paralympics Military Program, and I got to go to the Games as a guest in 2010 and to talk to veteran service organizations. It was shortly before that that I made the Games my ultimate goal, and when I made it my goal, I don’t do anything halfheartedly.
My daughter was just being born in March of 2010, and because I was chasing this goal and it was my dream, I named her Londyn because of the London 2012 Games. It was one of those things where every day, when I left the house first thing in the morning, I could give her a kiss and say, “I love you, Londyn,” and it put that in my head and planted that seed every single day.
That’s when I decided: if you’re gonna do something, do it.
I think that sport is so transformative, especially for me in the fact that with a brain injury, I had to learn to do so much stuff over again. I would go through a whole bottle of shampoo because I forgot that I just washed my hair. All of that stuff is a part of learning.
Now when I get to go out, or even when I’m training and I’m wearing something that says “USA” every single day, I have that immense pride and drive to perform my best. It’s also humbling, because I’m representing not only myself, but I’m representing my family, my friends, my community, everything.
With all the charities and veteran service organizations out there, I think that what makes the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Paralympics such a worthy cause is the fact that it’s something that gives dreams back. Growing up, yes, some of us wanted to be a soldier, but can you imagine how many times you made the game-winning shot in the backyard?
A big part of reestablishing your life and being able to rebuild your life is going back to the basics, and I think sport plays such an inherent role in that, that everything in your physical and mental well-being is enhanced through playing sports.
Representing my country has been the greatest honor. And being able to wear “USA” right on my chest has given me the greatest sense of pride that anyone could ever know.
The USOC is proud to support athletes who served in the Armed Forces as they recover from injury, represent the United States and strive to achieve their Olympic and Paralympic dreams. Please consider giving in support of Paralympic athletes and veterans like Justin Widhalm this Veterans Day, when every dollar you give will be matched up to $15,000. Click here to make your gift.