Paralympic medalist has been thrown some curves in life but aims for success

Justin Phongsavanh never expected he would one day own a home on two acres in Henry County on Atlanta’s southside.

He also never thought he’d break a world record for javelin-throwing or be paralyzed from the chest down.

The Iowa native of Laotian descent had plans for his life all mapped out by 18. He graduated high school a semester early and was already working full time as an electrician’s apprentice with the goal of working his way up to union electrician.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“I thought I would get a stable job and do that for 30 years,” he said. “I was just going to do the normal, have the standard life.”

But on Oct. 25, 2015, Justin and a friend were gunned down in a McDonald’s parking lot in his hometown of Ankeny, Iowa, population 70,000. The events of that night could have been ripped from today’s headlines.

The teens had stopped for a quick bite to eat around 9:30 p.m. as they headed out to go camping. They didn’t realize they were being followed out of the restaurant until they saw the stranger with a gun.

The man pistol-whipped and then shot Justin’s friend before firing three times at Justin. One bullet missed, a second hit Justin’s knee, and the other hit his upper arm and, as it traveled through his body, severed his spinal cord.

The shooter, an Army veteran, attributed his rampage to post-traumatic stress triggered by the teens’ loud behavior in the restaurant.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“We’d never met the guy, never talked to him, never saw him,” Justin said. “He was drunk, off his meds, and just got provoked.”

Justin was in rehab for the next several months and spent some of that time figuring out a new direction for his life. He enrolled in community college and decided to check into Iowa’s adaptive sports programs — competitive and recreational sports for people with disabilities.

“Life doesn’t end when something tragic happens,” Justin said. “It is a new beginning. We are able to do things. We just have to go about it differently.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

He developed a love of sports in elementary school that carried through to high school, where he lettered in track, football, rugby and wrestling.

Now in a wheelchair, his mind again turned to the joy he found in playing sports. Only this time, he decided his niche was throwing the javelin. At the first competition he attended in Illinois in 2016, he broke Paralympic records for shot put, disc, javelin and powerlifting.

“That’s when my competitive nature took over, and I said: ‘I want to do this all the time,” Justin said.

In 2017, he met Erica Wheeler, a javelin competitor in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games who is now the USA National Team throws coach for the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field program.

Wheeler said Justin has drive, determination and focus” and is also a “generous, thoughtful and a good teammate.

“He is a great athlete and person,” she said.

Justin has proven to be a success in the sport around the world, including winning a bronze medal in the javelin throw F54 event at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. In June 2021, he set a world record at the U.S. Paralympic Team trials for Track & Field when he threw the javelin 33.29 meters, nearly four feet farther than the previous record in the men’s F54/F57 wheelchair division.

He’s looking forward to the next two Paralympic Games, in Paris in 2024 and in Los Angeles in 2028.

“I plan on throwing until my arm falls off,” quipped Justin, who just turned 26.

His adopted mother, Tamera Shinn, is his biggest cheerleader. Both of his birth parents were in prison by the time he was 2 years old. He bounced around the Iowa foster care system for three years before being adopted by Shinn and her husband.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Paralympic medalist Justin Phongsavanh

Credit: Photo courtesy of Paralympic medalist Justin Phongsavanh

Although the Shinns divorced when Justin was 13, and he no longer has contact with his adopted father, he and his mother remain very close.

“My mom is my biggest supporter,” he said. She’s at many of his events, but if not, “she’s the first person I call.”

He struggled initially with the fact that the man who injured his friend and left him paralyzed had been charged with attempted murder but was convicted in 2016 on lesser charges. The man was released from prison in 2019, according to Iowa prison records.

“That was a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “But there was nothing I could do about it. I had to just pick myself up and carry on with my life.”

He said he’s most proud of having gone back to college and having received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, knowing he’ll one day need “a fallback.”

“One day, my arm will fall off, and I’ll have to start making money in the real world,” he said.

Justin said he moved to McDonough in Henry County last year to escape the cold winters in Iowa and to take advantage of the area’s more affordable housing prices. He shares the home with Morgan, a white gold retriever, and Dixie, a yellow lab.

He’s at the gym several times a week, and the two acres he owns give him plenty of room to train three times a week with the javelin. He also has his own photo booth company and side hustles power-washing houses and hanging Christmas lights. For several years, he has volunteered with nonprofits that work with disabled children, including Atlanta-based BlazeSports America.

Coach Wheeler said she loves that “Justin never complains or says he can’t do something.

“He tells his story to inspire others,” she said. “Justin has a great balance in his life. He can train and focus on sport but also is setting himself up for a big full life.”