U.S. wheelchair javelin world record-holder Justin Phongsavanh: “We definitely want to be recognized as athletes, before inspiration”

Phongsavanh, who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in a parking lot in 2015, talks about the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics, his difficult road to recovery and his broader thoughts on the state of adaptive sports.

Justin Phongsavanh, an American wheelchair javelin thrower who set a new world record in his discipline this June, hopes to see greater media publicity around the Paralympics in the United States – and sees a lack of awareness about resources as a major roadblock to prospective athletes.

In the midst of training for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo two weeks from now, Phongsavanh also spoke to Around the Rings about his expectations for the competition ahead, how he was able to mentally rebound from being shot and paralyzed in 2015, the barriers that keep people with spinal injuries from pursuing adaptive sports, and public misconceptions about Paralympians.

Born in 1997 in the city of Ankeny, Iowa, Phongsavanh was a high school varsity athlete in four sports before being gunned down in a McDonald’s parking lot at 18 years old, paralyzing him below the waist. After spending four months in the hospital, he resolved to not let the incident stop him from competing; starting in wheelchair basketball before moving over to athletics. In addition to holding the world record in his category (F54), he won the 2019 Parapan American Games and placed fourth at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships.

You’ve just set a new world record in your discipline of 33.29 meters, a full meter more than anyone else has ever thrown. What specific goals competition-wise have you set for the Games in Tokyo?

I try not to set my expectations too high; I don’t want to put any extra pressure [on myself] than what I need. Basically, the only expectation I’m putting on myself for the Games is to have a great experience, take it all in and just compete to the best of my ability and try my best. I’m hoping that on that given day my best is good enough to win gold.

Most people would say you are the main favorite to win gold, but do you have any rivals that you need to watch out for? How competitive or deep has the field in wheelchair javelin been in recent years?

Phongsavanh competes at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Lima 2019)
Phongsavanh competes at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Lima 2019)

Yeah, 2019 was the first year that people started throwing over 30 meters, and luckily, I was part of that group... I would basically say: there’s the Iranian who’s the current world champion and the Greek who’s the current Paralympic champion, a Mexican who was the previous [world] record-holder, and the Belarus guy who is throwing 31 meters. So it’s a very deep field with us five, and then there’s always the Russian who is the previous Paralympic champion and a multiple-time world champion.

If I’m not on my game, any of those guys, their personal records might be smaller or not as far as mine, but they could easily beat me. And that’s exactly what happened in the 2019 World Championships.

Do you have any plans to continue your career after Tokyo? Are you aiming perhaps to compete at the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympics, which are right on your doorstep in Southern California?

I will be competing for as long as my body can handle it. I’ll always keep doing this, it’s a great outlet, great deterrent, great hobby. Whether or not it’s my full-time job, I will always keep training for Paralympic sport, and my goal is to go to LA 2028 and also Brisbane in 2032.

When it comes to your background: after what you experienced with being shot and paralyzed, most people would have probably given up on life in some way. But you didn’t. How would you say that you prevented that from happening? What did you tell yourself to give yourself the motivation to keep going and make the most of things as they were?

I had a lot of time to reflect and think about what happened and what is going to happen in my life after the incident, and basically gave myself two ultimatums. I can leave this life and live like a minimalist and wallow in self-pity, and just coast by and not do anything extraordinary. Or Option B, maybe I can grab life by the horns, get out of my comfort zone and see how great I can make this life and see what I can make out of it, and just make life incredible.

And so then I said: well, Option A is always there. Let’s just see what Option B has first. So then I was just like, alright, let’s do it. Let’s get out of our comfort zone. Let’s go do things that seem out of the range of my possibility, my comfortability, or my social anxiety. And then I will just go with that and see how it affects me and my character and everything that has to go on in my daily life. So that’s just what I’ve been doing. Little by little, my utility of life is going up. My happiness is going up. I’m meeting great people and I’m doing extraordinary things in retrospect of where I was.

I think one of the most incredible things personally about your story is that even though you came face to face with the worst humanity has to offer, you didn’t let that destroy your faith in others. Am I right in saying that you’ve had some incredible support from loved ones that’s helped you both back then and now?

Phongsavanh is a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (Challenged Athletes Foundation).
Phongsavanh is a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (Challenged Athletes Foundation).

Absolutely. Right after I got shot, that same night I was surrounded by friends and family in the hospital room and everything. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my support system and the team that I’ve built even after I was injured.

With the COVID-19 pandemic happening, it seems more Americans than ever have had their lives upended because of adversity – whether it’s through illness or the death of a loved one, social isolation, unemployment, lost educational opportunities or even lost sporting opportunities for athletes. What’s your advice to others who may feel like you once did: that their life has gone way off course because of COVID, and they just don’t know where to go from here?

Yeah, it’s not taking anything for granted because you really don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. And life is short, time is valuable. Time is the one thing you can’t buy more of and you don’t get any more of, and life is very precious. You never know what could happen tomorrow, it could all end. Yesterday is the past, tomorrow is never certain and today is a blessing. So when I’m thinking about something like even COVID, with the small setbacks or large setbacks, depending on how bad it affected you, it’s more so just being grateful for the opportunities that you’ve had in the past, and the endless opportunities that could be in front of you.

And if it comes down to a lost family member because of COVID, it’s definitely thinking about, more so, the time that you spent with them. Everything that they [brought to] your life is a blessing in itself, so try not to focus too much on the negatives and try to focus on the gratitude of what was there, and being in that situation... Take a step back, look at the big picture, take a deep breath of the fresh air that you’re able to breathe every day.

You’ve been coaching high school adaptive sports in San Diego for a few years now. Do you think that aspiring Paralympians in the US have enough resources at a grassroots level, and is there any specific area where you’d like to see some changes?

Yeah, I think there has definitely been an increase in resources for adaptive athletes regardless of if they are elite or if they are starting or if they’re just recreational. There are definitely resources there. They are very far in between; there’s a lot on the East Coast and the West Coast, there’s not too many in the Southern states. There’s not [an organization] in every state, I know that for sure. But there’s definitely been a widespread net connecting them all together, almost like a governing body.

Phongsavanh celebrates at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Lima 2019)
Phongsavanh celebrates at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Lima 2019)

It’s super great to see that and how everyone is working together, but I think the biggest thing that needs to be worked on is: these resources might be there, but people do not know about them. Regardless of whether they’re going to utilize them or not. Because the likelihood that one person that never uses it will have to use it one day is very unlikely. But whether it’s them or if it’s someone that they know... it’s the word of mouth, the chain, through which the resources spread.

And so I think it comes down to that there’s not a lot of knowledge. Because I didn’t even know about the Paralympics when I got injured. I mean, I’ve met new athletes that have gotten into the Paralympics after five years of college, and they immediately come in as champions. There’s just not a lot of United States publicity over the Paralympics. It’s always the Olympics, college, no one ever talks about disabled individuals or disabled competitions... So I think that’s what the United States and also other organizations can do. More outreach to larger populations in aspects of publicity, PR, advertisements and better marketing tactics, and channeling resources and funds.

Last month I interviewed Oksana Masters [another American Paralympic athlete] and she said a similar thing: that Paralympians, especially female Paralympians, are underrepresented in the media. Do you think that representation is a major issue? How do you think that we could best go about publicizing Paralympic athletes?

First and foremost, I think there’s a very, not harsh, but almost a passive stigma based on disabled individuals. It’s like no one really wants to talk on the subject, touch on the subject or incorporate the subject into a conversation because it’s almost a sensitive topic. It’s like talking politics: [people] don’t want anything to get mis-said, misinterpreted, assumed. I think it’s one of those things where even if you just add a person in a wheelchair or a person without a foot or an arm into a normal advertisement for Target or something – that right there is showing inclusivity. And that’s fantastic. That right there is enough.

Now when you go to Paralympic sports that is more of a tailored audience. Yes, there are 64 different types of sport in the Paralympics, but each one has their main representatives of each sport, and those people get spotlighted. It doesn’t matter so much about accolades when it comes to general advertisements. When we start doing advertisements like [with] Toyota or Secret, those big-time sponsors, yeah, you want to highlight the elite because they have a following, they have recognition and a likeness. But I think it really comes down to, for the normal population, including a disabled person maybe in a photo or commercial.

Phongsavanh competes in a 2019 event (Challenged Athletes Foundation)
Phongsavanh competes in a 2019 event (Challenged Athletes Foundation)

If you want to spread the word for the Paralympics... I would have loved a Paralympic pamphlet at the major spinal cord rehabilitation centers around the country. It’d be that easy. Or physical rehabilitation seminars, having your representatives from the Paralympics speak to them. So now these physical therapists and occupational therapists know what the Paralympics are. It’s something like where you get them in and then you say “Hey, this four-year varsity football player in high school just got a spinal cord injury. I know what the Paralympics are, and this could be a great channel for this guy”. But yeah, the biggest thing is just there’s no knowledge of the Paralympics.

I’m surprised that so many athletes who get spinal cord injuries aren’t immediately referred to the Paralympics as a great opportunity. Why do you think that is?

I thought about that too, and I think it’s almost because for individuals that are newly injured, they don’t want to put them in a position where they try their hardest and they fail to achieve a high standard or something. Someone who just got paralyzed who was a high school champion in wrestling, and you throw him into track and field and he tries and tries and tries and he comes up short, that sucks. For anybody, especially a newly injured person whose headspace isn’t the best.

So maybe that’s why they don’t push high performing things on new athletes. Usually they push recreational activities like “hey, you want to try and go hiking or go rock climbing” or something like that where there’s no expectation. But when we get into high performing athletics then there are very high expectations and a lot of times people come up short.

With millions of Americans tuning in to watch the Paralympics in about 2 weeks’ time: is there anything else about yourself or Paralympic athletes in general that you’d like the public to know? Any common misconceptions you’d like to address?

The biggest thing I would like to address for competing in regard to Paralympic athletes is: just because the ways that we compete in some of our events are different than what the Olympics are or different from anyone else does not discredit what it takes for us to be at the top of our class in the world. We train to the best of our abilities to the highest degree that we can. Whether or not it looks the same, we still put in the hours, the focus, the dedication and the aspirations as any other high performing athlete.

We definitely want to be recognized as athletes, before inspiration... That’s the biggest thing, it’s just clarifying that we train just as hard as [Olympians], but with respect to our abilities to do so. Because an Olympian can train 100% of their body, I’m paralyzed from the chest down, I can only train a quarter of my body. But you’d better believe I’m training that top part of my body just as hard as an Olympian would train the top quarter of his body.