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'Anything Is Achievable': How Justin Phongsavanh Rebuilt His Life After A Shooting Left Him Paralyzed

Justin Phongsavanh
Donald Miralle
Challenged Athelte Foundation
Justin Phongsavanh

Justin Phongsavanh, of Ankeny, was an athlete in high school, but never dreamed of becoming an elite athlete.

Phongsavanh has records in discus and shot put still standing at his alma mater from his days in Track & Field, but after graduation, he was focused on becoming an electrician until a violent attack turned his life upside down. Phongsavanh and his friend, Nick Culver, were eating at McDonald's right before a camping trip. An unknown man followed them from the restaurant.

Culver was beaten, and Phongsavanh intervened. But before leaving the parking lot, the attacker fired five rounds at Phongsavanh and his friend. The shooter missed twice, but one bullet scraped Phongsavanh's knee and the other hit Culver's arm. The final shot hit Phongsavanh's arm and traveled through his body damaging his lung. One of eight fragmented pieces of the bullet severed his spine.

"It was almost like a mini earthquake inside my body," Phongsavanh said. "It rippled throughout my body to the point where I could almost taste the injury... I knew when I tried to get up to run, and I couldn't, that I was paralyzed."

Phongsavanh spent four months in hospitals and rehabilitation. After being discharged, he found himself bored at home and started to look into adaptive spots. Learning that wheelchair basketball wasn't his sport, Phongsavanh was introduced to Paralympic Track & Field which re-ignited his competitive personality. He soon found himself competing on the world stage as a contender in the javelin at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games in Ireland where he hit his National A Team standard and landed a spot on Team USA.

Justin Phongsavanh

Now, Phongsavanh will compete in the F54 category, which includes wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injuries. He's one of four athletes from Iowa who have qualified to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Reflecting on his journey, Phongsavanh says he wants people to understand that someone in a wheelchair is no less of a person or athlete and is not bound by any limitations.

"I just want to be that example of [working] hard, believe in yourself and you have faith, anything is achievable no matter the size or what you want it to be."

This edition Talk of Iowa features Charity Nebbe's interview with Justin Phongsavanh. The Paralympic Games begin August 24, 2021.


  • Justin Phongsavanh, Paralympic Athlete
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa