At 25 years of age, Vilaphone ‘Bee’ Phouthavongsay’s had the world at his feet. A rising basketball star, Bee was among the top listed players in the Laos national team.
But in 2007, his life was turned upside down after he lost his right arm in a motorbike accident.
“I lost everything, including my dreams,” Phouthavongsay said.
It was a long road to recovery, with the Vientiane-based rider taking four to five years to overcome the accident, before he turned to recreational cycling in 2014.
“At the time I didn’t think about being a national athlete. I would just ride for fun,” he said.
“I had saved for a while, for a mountain bike. It was maybe $200-$300. After that my friends would give me parts. It was a ‘franken-style’ type bike.
“Going to cycling was a surprise - they didn’t care about my body; they still gave me a chance to try. They didn’t stop me. They helped me, supported me, and help build my confidence to do what I want.”
Continuing to train and compete in the sport, it wasn’t long before Phouthavongsay took his first podium at a race in Thailand, less than two years after taking up cycling.
“It made me proud of myself again, and it was the turning point of my life. It’s not just a podium.It shows what people living with a disability can do,” he said.
The opportunities to ride a bike in Laos are limited, for both para and non-para athletes, but Phouthavongsay was fortunate enough to secure a sponsorship with Top Cycle team in Laos who equipped him with a bike.
Then with the support of cycling connections and friends, Phouthavongsay set up the Lao Para-cycling Association in 2018, which grew into the Laos Paracycling Federation in 2021 and enabled him to support other para cyclists and compete overseas.
Since then, he has competed on the international stage at events in Thailand and Malaysia, and completed a Half Ironman in 2018.
To help establish the Federation, Phouthavongsay also endeavored to improve his education and English-speaking skills, and with assistance from the Australian Government and the Australian Embassy in Laos, he submitted an Australian Award scholarship application to study in Australia.
Now aged 39, Phouthavongsay has spent last year studying at Holmesglen in Melbourne, where he completed a Diploma of Sport and Diploma of Event management and competed in crit races as a member of the Southern Masters Cycling Club.
The opportunity to line up alongside 54 other para-cyclists at the Road Cycling National Championships in Buninyong came after meeting one of Australia’s most decorated para-cyclists at a race in Melbourne, with triple Paralympic gold medalist Carol Cooke inviting Phouthavongsay to participate at Road Nationals.
“Bee is a real go getter and wants to help build para cycling in his country,” Cooke said.
“Although I believe we still have a long way to go with equality across cycling, Australia has come a long way in my 12 years on the team, and if by Bee seeing what can be accomplished [here], I know he will be able to start doing that at home.”
Phouthavongsay placed second in the C5 category at Road Nationals, before flying back to Laos the following day.
Possibly more important than the result however, is that the experience made him feel included.
“I feel lonely, I always look different. But this experience, when I join the other para cyclists, they are the same as me. It’s like going to your hometown; you are with your people,” he said.
“I try to keep everything in my memories, to bring back to my country, to build up cycling in my country and build up the good relationship between AusCycling and Lao-cycling federation. In the meantime, support riders in Lao [to] have a chance to participate in the international competition like this.”
While training and competing in Laos, Phouthavongsay said he hopes to spread his passion for cycling to others in his country.
“I learned a lot of things (from Road Nationals). We need to start from the ground. You need to bring bicycles to the people to give them a chance to have fun on a bike.”
Cover image: Con Chronis