When he was growing up as a Midwest kid, Justin Widhalm’s mom used to tell him “adversity builds character.” However, after his experiences, he decided the real story is that “adversity reveals character.” Adversity reveals the strength people already have inside themselves. After surviving 12 IEDs and a fall from a helicopter that broke his back and resulted in serious brain damage, the combat veteran still represents the United States, only now as a para-athlete.
Though his father and brother served in the military, family wasn’t the only driving force to enlist. Justin says, “It was the sense of being a protector. In high school, I always stuck up for the people that were getting bullied.” He re-enlisted after 9/11 and served two tours in Iraq. Joining the military was a natural progression, unlike his journey into cycling.
Justin faced even more adversity after his helicopter fall. “They told me everything that I knew was over. Not only being an athlete, but my military career. Everything I had strived for and been good at was essentially taken away from me.” Justin didn’t accept that answer, and became determined to get back to being the best Justin he could be. “That’s what led me to a bike. Ever since then, it’s been a source of freedom. I felt when I was medivacked from Iraq that I was a failure because I was doing my best and the enemy was able to force me off the international stage. The ability to compete and to have the U.S. flag back on my chest helps me to go back and rewrite that in my mind and know that I’m in control.”
Today, Justin races against pros at an elite level. As a member of US Military Endurance Sports’ Elite Team, he also competes alongside current, retired, and veteran members of the United States Uniformed Services. He was the first US para-cyclist to receive a Category 1 upgrade, the top grade in U.S. cycling, and continues to not only compete at para-events, but against able-bodied, elite, athletes. More than any championship he may win, he’s most proud of his family, with his wife and children being everything he ever wanted. His ultimate goal remains to be the best Justin he can be.