On June 18, competing at the Olympic Trials in Oregon, Ryan Crouser broke the world record in the shot put by 10 inches.
The next day, throwing at the Paralympic Trials in Minnesota, Chula Vista’s Justin Phongsavanh broke the F54 world record in the javelin by 4 feet, 7 inches — blasting out a 600-gram stick 33.29 meters (109-2) from a seated position. The previous record? 31.90 meters.
Guess who speared the most coverage?
NBC Sports aired both — giving Crouser’s historic heave repeat exposure. Google shows nearly 300,000 results for “Ryan Crouser Trials world record.”
The Beamonesque javelin record (since he skipped right over the 32-meter barrier like the long jumper past 28 feet) was featured in a 10-second clip. Google shows 1,240 results for “Justin Phongsavanh Trials world record.”
The 24-year-old native of Ankeny, Iowa, accepts the media bias — if not having to throw at a “second-class” suburban Minneapolis high school track instead of what he calls “the most beautiful stadium I’ve ever seen” — rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
Six years after being paralyzed from the diaphragm down in a McDonald’s parking lot shooting, Phongsavanh will compete for Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympics.
But he almost didn’t get that shot at glory.
SHOCKED BY DRUG TEST RESULT
He soon was notified that he had tested positive for torsemide (also known as torasemide) — a banned diuretic or masking agent. He faced a four-year ban from competition.
“I was shocked,” he said of the positive result. “I don’t take anything like that. I was super confused.”
Working with a USOPC ombudsman and others, he sent one of his legal prescriptions to a Utah laboratory for testing — and found it was contaminated with torsemide.
Phongsavanh said he was prepared to fight a potential ban tooth and nail.
“I knew true and dear to my heart that I’ve never taken any PEDs in my life,” he told Times of San Diego after a recent practice at the Olympic and Paralympic training site.
USADA — the same agency that imposed a month’s suspension on sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for smoking marijuana, keeping her out of the Tokyo Games — said the substance in Phongsavanh’s system “was determined to have been ingested by him without fault or negligence. As a result, Phongsavanh will not face a period of ineligibility for his positive test.”
Or as Phongsavanh puts it: “USADA decided to overturn the sanction, and I accepted a sanction of nothing, essentially.”
How did a banned chemical get into his prescription?
His pharmacy, CVS, gave him pills accidentally dusted in torsemide powder. They were prepared in a tray that hadn’t been cleaned. He asked CVS to be more careful. The store couldn’t assure him of that.
So: “I had to change pharmacies,” he said. “They almost ruined my athletic career.”
EMBRACING A NEW LIFE AND SPORT
An accomplished multisport athlete in high school — including football, rugby, wrestling and track — the nearly 6-2 Phongsavanh came to adaptive sports — also called para sports — a few years after being shot in 2015. At first, he tried wheelchair basketball.
Phongsavanh — who uses the name of his immigrant adoptive father, who is Laotian — eventually embraced an event he’d never done in high school. The javelin throw.
He won his first national title in 2017, and took fourth at the 2019 IPC World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — despite fouling four of his six throws.
Last December, in the run-up to the June Paralympic Trials at Breck Upper School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, Phongsavanh told Babbitt: “I can destroy the world record. No questions about it.”
And after many practice throws over 32 meters (and three or four over 33), he did.
He called his record toss “a dream,” but “I’m still not satisfied. I want to push the envelope for my class. I want to try to see being a true [F54] in my disability if I can catch up and can tackle the next class up, they throw 35-36 (meters).”
F54 athletes “have full power and movements in their arms, but no power in their abdominal muscles and typically no sitting balance,” says the category description.
That’s why Phongsavanh must grasp a pole attached to his 2-foot-4-inch-high metal platform chair (with a seat cushion and series of straps to his waist).
“The pole acts as my abs,” he said after a training session that included dozens of throws with a squishy weight ball, a standard-issue worker’s mallet and his 1.3-pound javelin — the same thrown by women in the Olympics. (The men’s jav is too long.)
His abdominal muscles are useless: “If I leaned back without the pole I would just lay there … strapped in. I would not be able to do a sit-up and get back up.”
But many people have his back, including Erica Wheeler, his training center coach (and 1996 Olympian in the javelin), and Gustavo Osorio, his weight trainer. Also high school friends and coaches, his girlfriend Bethany in Iowa (whom he met at the training center, where she worked) and his mother, Tamera Shinn, who had raised him alone since age 11.
JAVELIN LEGENDS RATE JUSTIN
Among his new fans — three former javelin greats contacted for comment on Phongsavanh.
“Wow!” said two-time British Olympian Roald Bradstock, now a U.S. citizen living in Florida. “That’s impressive. I couldn’t throw that far even in my prime.”
Bradstock, 57, with best marks of 299-10 (old style) and 275-1 (new style), said he had always had a big standing throw, “but throwing from a sitting position is something else entirely.”
Track and Field Hall of Fame member Franklin “Bud” Held of Del Mar, 93, was a 1952 Olympian. In 1953, the Stanford alumnus became the first American to hold the world javelin record, reaching 263-10.
Held called Phongsavanh’s story “inspiring” — and launched into a discussion of how his stabilizing pole should “allow about 6 inches more backward reach, allow better timing on his backward to forward body trust, facilitate a longer throwing motion and utilize the forward spring from the pole to add to the throw velocity.”
But under IPC rules, Phongsavanh’s pole can’t flex more than its diameter — 1 1/2 inches.
Held, who with his late brother Dick designed and made the modern-day javelin, called out a “discrepancy” in para sports.
“Runners are allowed the use of flexible blades to improve their performances, but javelin throwers do not appear to be allowed the use of flexible poles to improve their performances,” he said. “Justin’s throws look pretty herky jerky. It appears that the rhythm of the throw, as well as the distance, could be improved by the use of a more flexible pole.”
Tom Petranoff, the former Palomar College star, held the world javelin record from May 1983 to July 1984 — throwing 327-2 before its design was changed. The two-time Olympian also had a best of 292-6 with the new javelin.
Petranoff, 63, coached South African Paralympian Fanie Lombaard in 1996. He won six golds in various events at three Paralympic Games as an F42 athlete eligible to throw from a standing position. (He threw 50 meters — 164 feet — from a seated position.)
“It is not easy to throw it from [a] chair,” Petranoff said. “He needs to use side better and relax shoulder and pull it.”
WILLPOWER TO BECOME A CHAMPION
Babbitt, the co-founder of Competitor magazine, praises Phongsavanh.
“The fact that he was shot in a McDonald’s parking lot and paralyzed when he was 18 and the person who shot him did very little time in prison, this could be a very bitter young man,” he said via email. “Instead, he lives life through the windshield, not the rearview mirror and is accomplishing greatness in everything he does.”
Phongsavanh has done “countless” clinics for the Challenged Athletes Foundation “and is always there to speak to a recently paralyzed kid or adults,” Babbitt said. “This young man understands and embraces his life as a role model for those who come next.”
Calling him “calm, focused [with] the willpower to become a champion,” Babbitt said “just getting to Tokyo after everything he has gone through is a huge victory. Winning a medal in Tokyo will be just frosting on the cake. I want him to enjoy every second of his journey. Everything else will take care of itself.”
In Tokyo, Phongsavanh expects a one-day final Friday, Sept. 3, facing state-subsidized professionals in their late 30s and early 40s like Aleksei Kuznetsov of Russia, Manolis Stefanoudakis of Greece and Aliaksandr Tryputs of Belarus. (Recent world record holder Edgar Ulises Fuentes Yanez of Mexico is injured, Phongsavanh says.)
Also expected: Hamed Amiri of Iran, the 2019 world champion and 2016 Rio silver medalist.
With the best throw ever, Phongsavanh may be the favorite, but he’s not counting on anything. (And his six throws will be consecutive, with 4 minutes to strap in and a minute to throw once his stick is returned to him.)
He says his older rivals are known for their consistency. Beyond that, Phongsavanh says he’s been dealing with injuries for two years — and the uncertainty of staying healthy.
“I had to have routine injections (but not cortisone) in my wrist because inflammation gets really bad in one of the tendons,” he said recently. “Makes it almost unusable.”
He expects to have a “very easy surgery, like maybe a two-week recovery” — but not now. “I wasn’t going to take that chance with Tokyo.”
Finishing up his master’s degree in accounting at DeVry University, Phongsavanh says he relaxes by playing morning video games with his roommate, fellow Paralympian Trenten Merill, a long jumper headed for Tokyo.
They also play the stock market: “I’ve bought millions of shares of penny stocks.”
“One of my biggest revenue streams is day-trading stocks,” he said. “Every day is: How can we be rich? There’s a lot of Paralympians who are entrepreneurs. We have a group chat.”
At a Friday morning practice, Phongsavanh noted that quarterly earnings were to be posted soon.
So he watches a scanner for the most activity — “so we can get in low and sell high.”
What he won’t buy is cryptocurrencies.
“It’s a get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “There’s a lot of scams out there, too. I’m just not in the market of uncertainty. … I only leverage what I can leverage.”