U.S. Cyclist Justin Widhalm Rides Into Coaching Career … In Wrestling
by Paul D. Bowker
Justin Widhalm had settled into his seat for the plane ride home from Paris following the 2022 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships, and all was good.
He did not have a world medal hanging around his neck.
Still, the moment seemed so perfect for the veteran cyclist. So calming.
“When I walked off and I got on the plane,” Widhalm remembered, “I just completely felt like content. All I could think on the ride home and everything was, ‘OK, what we got for wrestling preseason coming up?’”
Oh, yes, wrestling is Widhalm’s other life. He was a national high school champion. He wrestled at the University of Nebraska. Now he’s an assistant wrestling coach at Fountain-Fort Carson High School in Colorado, where his 16-year-old son Conner is among the wrestlers.
In between all that wrestling, though, he doubled as an elite Para-cyclist for Team USA. He had turned to cycling as part of his rehabilitation from severe concussions stemming from IED blasts during his second deployment to Iraq as a sniper for the U.S. Army in 2006.
In Paris, Widhalm had missed the podium by just three-tenths of a second behind Slovakia’s Jozef Metelka in the 1,000-meter time trial MC4. Widhalm posted the fastest time he ever had at a world championship: 1:07.467.
“I knew that, on that day, that was the absolute best ride that I could have performed,” Widhalm said. “Everything was to the best of my ability. Everything that you always hope for in a ride, the perfect ride for you and stuff like that, it was there. I got beat. The world is tough.”
A day later, on the Paris track that will be used in the Paralympic and Olympic Games next year, Widhalm teamed up with good friends Chris Murphy and Aaron Keith for a sixth-place finish in the team sprint. It turned out to be his final race at his eighth world championship.
From there, Widhalm, then 45, rode proudly into the Colorado sunset, ending a competitive cycling career that began in 2009.
“It was like, Father Time’s undefeated,” Widhalm said of his retirement decision. “I didn’t want to be slowing down and that sort of thing. I wanted to go out and be remembered that way.”
This year, when Murphy won a medal in his farewell world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, Widhalm says he was up at 3 every morning to watch the action at home. But going there as a cyclist? It didn’t make sense to him.
“I was riding fast enough in everything. I could have went to the world championships this year, but I wouldn’t have been as fast as I was,” he said. “Why just go on a trip to not be competitive? Why not just have that great last memory of your racing career?”
Widhalm had experienced a not-quite-ideal ending before. During his wrestling days, one night he dislocated his hip in an NCAA competition at Northern Iowa’s UNI-Dome. It ended his wrestling career.
Widhalm was pretty sure his competitive cycling career was over after those 2022 track world championships in Paris. That offseason, he sought the advice of others before making his retirement official.
Jennie Reed, a three-time Olympian who now helps coach the U.S. Paralympics Cycling team, told him: “What if you were to go (out) and go to the track? Just ride. See what you feel there.”
Widhalm did so at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And his feelings became even more obvious.
“I think I did about six sessions on the track,” Widhalm said. “The speed was there still, but it was just one of those that it wasn’t that burn. It seemed like for the first time post (military) injury, I didn’t need to have being a cyclist, an elite world-class cyclist, as my identity.”
So now he’s a wrestling coach and dad, and a volleyball dad. In addition to coaching and cheering for Conner, his 13-year-old daughter, Londyn, plays volleyball and is a wrestler.
“She loves it,” Widhalm said of Londyn, who attended a baby shower held for Olympic silver medalist and multi-time world champion Adeline Gray last year before Gray gave birth to twins. “It’s awesome to see a sheer joy when they’re doing it. That’s the biggest thing.”
At Fountain-Fort Carson High, Widhalm is an assistant to Jason Kutz, who is also a U.S. Army veteran and was a coach and wrestler with the Army World Class Athlete Program. Widhalm was a wrestler in the program prior to his injury.
After two years as a volunteer assistant, Widhalm was promoted to a staff coaching position in February 2023.
“I always wanted to be a wrestling coach,” he said.
“I really love the ability to help kids realize what they can achieve when they invest their time in something,” added Wilhelm, who studied elementary education in college and is married to Jennifer Widhalm, a para-education specialist. “It doesn’t come along quickly, but when you commit to something and you go and you go and you go, then how far you can make it with just the commitment. So many things today are instant, everything from food to marriages. I love seeing the kids trust the process and having them realize that.”
And when Justin isn’t helping Jennifer around their house in Fountain or helping to coach Kutz’s daughter as she takes on triathlon competition, you’ll still find him on a bike.
“Yeah, I do,” Widhalm said. “I’m still riding to stay fit.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.