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As the man who shot him was escorted from the courtroom on his way to prison, Justin Phongsavanh heard him say, “Enjoy your wheelchair.”
Phongsavanh, 22, was paralyzed from the waist down when he went to a McDonald’s for food on Oct. 24, 2015, and ended up with a bullet lodged in his spine.
He believes the shooter, a U.S. Army veteran whose defense hinged on PTSD, demonstrated a lack of remorse with the chilling remark.
“I think the biggest bounce-back in response to it is just living – and living in a healthy, happy, positive manner,” Phongsavanh said. “That’s what I do every day.”
He has two wheelchairs now: one for daily life and one for throwing.
Phongsavanh is a top contender for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in the javelin in the F54 category, which includes wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injuries.
Within four years of the shooting, Phongsavanh was the Parapan American Games gold medalist last August in Lima, Peru. That was his first major international event and he posted his National A Team standard of 30.56 meters. To make Team USA, Phongsavanh must produce a throw at the Paralympic trials that is approximately 95 percent of that distance.
He has been throwing 30 meters consistently.
“When you know you connect and you feel it,” Phongsavanh said, “it’s a rush of excitement because it’s cinematic. You can sit back and you watch it go – and you never know how far it is, but you know it’s further than you’ve ever thrown. It’s a great feeling.”
While able-bodied throwers have a run-up to gain momentum, he is stationary and steadies himself by holding a bar.
“It’s all about flexibility and positioning really when it comes down to it,” Phongsavanh said. “You sit there and you’ve just got to hit the same positions as an Olympic athlete would using just the upper body instead of the lower body.”
A Breakout Year
Justin Phongsavanh competes at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships on Nov. 13, 2019 in Dubai.
Last November, Phongsavanh placed fourth in his first world championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, despite scratching on four of his six throws. Only 63 centimeters separated first from fourth.
“That’s where I hit my next level as an athlete,” he said. “I went from being the rookie to being a novice. It was an honor to finally know that I am a world-class athlete, that I’m here representing the United States on a world stage.”
Growing up in Ankeny, Iowa, outside of Des Moines, Phongsavanh played football and rugby and was a wrestler and track and field athlete.
He was all-conference as a 6-foot-1 defensive end in football and wrestled at 182, 195 and 220 pounds. In track and field, Phongsavanh threw the discus and shot put, with records still standing at his high school, and ran the 100- and 200-meter.
He didn’t throw the javelin because the state of Iowa doesn’t offer the event.
Competing in the Olympic Games never crossed Phongsavanh’s mind. “I saw it and I liked what I saw,” he said. “I liked watching them and seeing the athletes compete, but never had the aspiration to fully pursue an Olympic career.”
He’d never even heard of the Paralympic Games.
One Fateful Night
The shooting changed everything Phongsavanh thought he wanted to do with his life.
Then an 18-year-old apprentice electrician, he was hanging out with his buddy Nick Culver at a McDonald’s late one night. To impress a girls’ soccer team dining at the restaurant, Phongsavanh and Culver started joking around, with Culver throwing a fake tantrum and Phongsavanh filming it.
“It was all in good fun,” Phongsavanh said. “No one was offended.”
But Gabriel Coco, a 36-year-old former tank driver and gunner on the roof of Humvees in Iraq, was annoyed by their antics.
“He didn’t like the way we were portraying ourselves in the restaurant,” Phongsavanh said.
When they left, Coco followed them out to the parking lot and grabbed a handgun from his car.
Coco pistol-whipped Culver and shot at the teenagers five times. Phongsavanh was hit twice and Culver once.
“He hit me in the upper arm,” Phongsavanh said, “and because he was so close, with the angle (the bullet) went in, it went down through my lung and it fragmented into five different (pieces) and one just went perfectly into my spine.”
Phongsavanh, who was also hit in the leg, knew immediately that he was paralyzed.
“My buddy was like, ‘Yo, stand up, we gotta go,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘I can’t move. I’m paralyzed.’ That’s when he just sat there next to me, and we just waited for the cops to arrive.”
Phongsavanh was in the hospital for four months, including rehabilitation.
His friends and family “were everything,” he said. “It would have been hard to be positive and to move forward accordingly after this injury if I didn’t have them and their support system.”
About a week after Phongsavanh got home from rehab, he was bored. Because it was now impossible to pursue a career as an electrician, he had decided to go to college – something he had ruled out in his previous life. But because it was between semesters, Phongsavanh couldn’t enroll.
Sports To The Rescue
Justin Phongsavanh celebrates at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
“I was like, ‘What can I do to occupy my time?’” he said.
Phongsavanh thought of wheelchair basketball, Googled it and Adaptive Sports of Iowa came up on the screen. He even found a team near his house.
A week into it, though, Phongsavanh said, “This is not for me.” He had wrestled all those years while other athletes played basketball and had never really learned how to shoot the ball.
“So I said, ‘Hey, what else is there?’”
That’s how Phongsavanh rediscovered track and field. Through Adaptive Sports Iowa and the Challenged Athletes Foundation he eventually obtained his own throwing chair.
Phongsavanh regained muscle mass and coordination as well as a sense of purpose.
“It’s one of those things where I’m going to dedicate myself to my craft in any way I can and I’m going to change the world,” he said.
How? “One step at a time.”
After Phongsavanh completes his degree in accounting, he’d like to work for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, putting to use his skills in business and as an athlete representative.
His injury, he said, “opened up a lot of avenues,” and he is determined to seize the opportunities that are presented.
“I have not been always this positive,” Phongsavanh said. “It took a lot of years to build myself to the point of where I am – just because I’ve never dealt with a trial this hard where you really had to dig down and find yourself and see the kind of person you want to be and how you want to get there.”
And he found that path through sports.
“It’s a great outlet and it’s a great resource for not only newly injured individuals, but for any Paralympic athlete young or old,” Phongsavanh said. “It is absolutely amazing. I just want to get more people involved.”
A Flair For Javelin
Although he initially threw the shot put and discus as well as the javelin, Phongsavanh realized he was at a disadvantage in the other two events because competitors in his classification had more function than he did.
That wasn’t an issue in the javelin, where he won his first national title in 2017 and was named 2017 Iowa Adaptive Sports Athlete of the Year.
Phongsavanh also had a brief flirtation with Para powerlifting. “I was very strong before my injury, and I was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to try everything once,’” he said. “It’s really hard to cross train between javelin, when you need flexibility, and bench press, when you need brute strength.”
Since January 2019, Phongsavanh has lived at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, with his service and mobility dog Morgan, a white golden retriever who is a “fan favorite,” he said.
Morgan is trained to pick things up because Phongsavanh doesn’t have abdominal muscles. She also pulls Phongsavanh up steep hills.
When he’s not training, Phongsavanh goes fishing with other athletes and takes part in Tuesday Game Nights. “It’s very loud, to say the least,” he said. “I like this whole new environment that I’m in, being new and trying to go to my first Games. It’s humbling being around all these two- and three-time Paralympians. I watched all these guys compete in Rio on YouTube and I’m just envious.”
He recently met five-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, who has won 17 Paralympic medals, when she visited the training center.
Phongsavanh didn’t ask his fellow wheelchair athlete for any tips. “It was more just getting the courage to go up and talk to her knowing who she is and the impact she’s made on sports,” he said.
Helping The Next Generation
Justin Phongsavanh competes at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
He’s trying to make his own impact on younger athletes through coaching in both Iowa and southern California.
Phongsavanh said kids with disabilities who see able-bodied youths doing sports “have to look up and down in the mirror and say, ‘You can’t do what they do.’ But when you introduce them to the Paralympics or Para athletics as a whole, it opens up every avenue where they can look in the mirror and say, ‘I can do this and they can do that, and now we’re on an equal playing field.’ And they can have fun.”
He said the young athletes learn life skills, teamwork, perseverance, motivation, training and work ethic.
Phongsavanh said he’s gratified when “you get that text from the parent, or even the kid, thanking you for what you do, seeing them beat their (personal records), and eventually hopefully you’ll be competing next to them.”
While Phongsavanh tries to maintain an upbeat attitude, it did take some time for him to come to terms with being in a wheelchair.
"People don't see me as a 6-foot-1-inch person anymore; they see me as a 4-foot-9-inch person,” he said. “That feeling never goes away, that feeling of this is actually who I am.”
He said when he wheels into a restaurant, “There’s not a single person that doesn’t turn their head to look and keep eye contact for a little while. I would think, ‘Why is everyone staring at me? I’m just another person. No one stares at the normal guy who just walks in.’”
Phongsavanh said he had to understand that people weren’t staring at him in a malicious way.
“They’re staring at you because you’re a young kid in a wheelchair and they’re just curious about every aspect of it,” he said. “So, it was just being open-minded to the wheelchair and accepting it which was the longest and hardest part.”
Phongsavanh was also unhappy that the man who shot him was not convicted of attempted murder. The jury found Coco guilty of two lesser assault counts – causing serious injury and going armed with intent. Coco, who admitted he had been drinking, had survived at least three blasts and a traumatic brain injury and said he struggled with PTSD.
“I really think that the jury was bamboozled, because he did have one of the best defense attorneys in the nation,” Phongsavanh said.
With that parting shot of, “Enjoy your wheelchair,” Phongsavanh said he was struck by the man’s arrogance.
“That tells a lot about his character, his judgment, his mental state of mind,” Phongsavanh said. “There was no question in my opinion that what he did was deliberate, because of the person that he is, not because of a mental condition.”
According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, Coco served under two years in prison and was released Aug. 14, 2019.
Eleven days later, Phongsavanh was the Parapan American Games champion.
“When I was in that hospital bed,” he said, “is when I decided, it doesn’t matter what happened, or what’s going on, or who’s in my life. At this point, I’m going to do this for me to better myself because I want to. Not because anyone told me. Because I want to.”