Justin PhongsavanhPara Track & FieldNews

Paralympic Javelin Thrower Justin Phongsavanh Had Other Plans For His Life

by Lisa Costantini

Justin Phongsavanh competes during the men's javelin F54 finals at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 22, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

For Paralympic javelin thrower Justin Phongsavanh, his life didn’t turn out how he expected. Not because he was shot at 18 and became paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair. But because “I wanted to be an electrician,” the bronze medalist shared. “I wanted to be that guy at 19, married with two kids and a house working a blue-collar job — living the American dream.”

Born in Iowa to Laotian and Caucasian parents and later adopted at the age of five, Phongsavanh played all the sports: football, track and field, rugby, wrestling… He envisioned attending college to pursue athletics one day.

“I knew I was good — better than most high school athletes — but I knew if I went to college, I would be subpar,” the 27-year-old said. So, in his senior year of high school, he gave up the dream of going pro and finished school a semester early to start working as an electrician’s apprentice.

At the end of 2015, while working full-time, Phongsavanh and a friend were tragically shot by a stranger in a McDonald’s parking lot in Iowa. As a result of that fateful night, he had to decide whether or not he wanted to continue to live with this new disability. Phongsavanh said it was a decision that spanned a couple of days.

“I gave myself three days to figure out if I wanted to deal with this — because I didn’t have to. I could always take the darker route out,” he admitted. Eventually, the skills he learned as an athlete took over and he was quickly mastering physical training. 

“PT is training — training to be independent,” Phongsavanh said. “And even when you’re independent, how are you going to navigate life living by yourself with a disability?” It was not easy he said, but necessary if he wanted to achieve his goals in and out of sport. 

Five months later, feeling the urge to compete again, he contacted Adaptive Sports Iowa to explore opportunities in Paralympic sports. Shortly thereafter, he earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team and has been proudly representing Team USA ever since.

Although he effortlessly wielded the javelin at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 — clinching the bronze medal — one might think he had honed his skills over a lifetime. However, despite his high school track and field background — concentrating primarily on shotput and discus — he only began javelin throwing after his accident. 

“When I put that thing in my hand and threw it [for the first time], it’s hard not to feel dangerous. I’m biased, but I think it’s the sexiest throwing event,” he laughed.

Justin Phongsavanh smiles after competing in the men's javelin F54 finals at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 22, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

He realizes that it’s not typical to see an Asian American competing in track and field. “You’re not seeing them run the 100, pole vault,” Phongsavanh said.” So, qualifying for Tokyo 2020 was an amazing opportunity to represent what he called a marginalized community.

“I was fortunate that after the Games, an Asian American Pacific Island non-profit reached out to me and did a documentary on me and some other phenomenal Asian Americans. It was on Hulu and incredible,” he remembered about the doc, “AAPI Heritage Heroes.”

His background is even more important to him knowing that he was adopted at a young age by Tammy Shinn, a woman who had no relation to his birth parents.

“For her to take a chance and adopt a random kid from a random family and raise him as her own as a single mom, I owe her everything,” he admitted.

Because of Shinn’s full-time job, she hasn’t been able to be at every competition, but his family and friends were in the stands when he recently competed in his home state for the first time.

The Drake Relays took place at the end of April and are an outdoor track and field event held in Des Moines, Iowa, at Drake University. This was the first year that seated throwers were invited to compete at the iconic 114-year-old event. Along with Phongsavanh was Team USA’s seated shot putter, Beth Grauer, who recorded a new personal best inside the infamous Blue Oval. 

“This is how we’re going to expand the sport and get more visibility — especially in the Paralympic space,” the 2020 Paralympian shared. “To be able to do this as an Iowan, at the Drake Relays and make history, it’s an honor.” 

Phongsavanh is used to making history.

At the last U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Track and Field, he set a world record, throwing the javelin 33.29 meters in the men’s F54/F57 wheelchair division with a distance of 33.20 meters, almost four feet farther than the previous record.

In Paris, he’s looking to set the bar high again — topping his third-place finish from Tokyo.

“This time I’m coming out with a vengeance,” he revealed. “I’m training harder, sacrificing more, and doing everything I can to be a Paralympic champion.”

Lisa Costantini has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than a decade, including for the International Olympic Committee. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to TeamUSA.com since 2011.