Thomas Yoxall and the 9th Medal
Thomas Yoxall looked at the rack of medals hanging on his wall. There were eight in total: one for each race he’d completed since he began running Spartan races three years earlier. And at the beginning of 2017, he’d planned on running more. A lot more. He was gunning for the Spartan Triple Trifecta and the Ultra Beast in Tahoe. But here it was, already Thanksgiving, and he hadn’t run a single race this year. His plans were completely derailed by a single flash of violence on January 12. It was a moment he’d been training for his whole life, but hoped would never happen.
By now the story has been widely reported. It was a cold Thursday at 4:30 a.m., just west of Phoenix on Interstate 10. Yoxall, just launching into a career as a photojournalist, was heading toward Los Angeles to visit a camera shop. But he slowed down when he saw flares in the road and the flashing lights of a squad car. He got out of his truck and pulled out a gun when he saw the attacker smashing a police officer’s head into the pavement. And after his shouts failed to stop the violence, he squeezed off three rounds.
The assailant crumpled, dead. He’d shot trooper Ed Andersson, and now Andersson lay bleeding from fractures, skull lacerations, and a bullet hole in his arm. But he was alive. Yoxall covered him with a jacket he found in the cruiser, and later, with blood still on his hands, he gave a statement to first responders on the scene.
Nearly a year later, as Yoxall, 45, stared at the rack on his wall, he thought: “There should be nine more medals on that thing.” Plus he was short an Ultra Beast medal, which he’d wanted to hang in a custom frame he’d made in anticipation of crossing the finish line in Tahoe. “You know what you have to do,” he told himself. “It’s time to get out. It’s time to Spartan up.”
A Hero’s Unlikely Path
Thomas Yoxall got his first of many tattoos when he was sixteen. The most menacing ink on his body shows a straight razor climbing up his neck and cutting an imaginary wound into his throat. Alongside the stretched holes in his earlobes where he used to wear spacers, it makes for a striking image. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t seem overly concerned with social norms.
Immediately after the shooting, Yoxall wanted to remain anonymous. He hoped to avoid drawing attention to himself or being called a hero. But local and national news outlets were eager to hear from the civilian who’d saved an officer’s life, so twelve days after the shooting, Yoxall agreed to speak at an Arizona Department of Public Service press conference. He knew his appearance would come as a shock.
“I was like, you guys realize that these motherfuckers aren’t ready for me?” he says, reflecting on the moment just before the conference. “They think Johnny Football’s going to walk out: six foot two, blonde hair, blue eyes, all-American quarterback. I’m going to stroll out and get behind the podium, and people are going to shit themselves.”
But things went smoothly, and the media ran with the story of a good samaritan who’d saved an officer’s life. Despite his hardscrabble exterior, Yoxall is thoughtful and articulate. And he didn’t take his role in the shooting lightly. “It’s difficult to think about that day still,” Yoxall said into a microphone, fighting back tears.
Nearly twenty years ago, Yoxall went through a rough patch. He was implicated in a burglary and convicted of a felony. “I would ask people to remember that those moments of poor judgment have not dictated my future nor represent the person that I am here today,” he says about that time. After serving out his probation, he had the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. “When I got my rights restored, it was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says. “Because for almost sixteen months, I couldn’t carry a gun.”
Arizona makes it easy for citizens to carry firearms, and Yoxall takes his right seriously. He fired a gun for the first time when he was five years old and bought his first sidearm when he was twenty-one. “I made the decision a long time ago that I was going to carry,” he says. “But I also know that with making that decision comes responsibility. I’m one of those people: if you’re going to be a responsible gun owner, you should go out and practice, just like anything else.”
And practice he did. Alongside his military and law-enforcement friends, he ran through tactical drills with the same tenacity he cultivated through Spartan races. “We train at a 100 percent plus 10, because you never know what you’re going to come up against,” he says. “Why train for less than the worst possible conditions?”
The Hardest Year
A week after the shooting, a Phoenix police sergeant took Yoxall to the gun range. But the trigger felt heavier than it had before. “The smell of the gunpowder, and boom—I’m right back on that morning at 4:30,” Yoxall says. “I had to take a step back. I started shaking. I started crying.”
News publications were celebrating him as a hero, and government and law enforcement officials all over the country were flying him out to accept words of kindness and certificates of honor. Meanwhile, Yoxall was seeing a counselor to work through the trauma of the shooting. “Anybody who hasn’t killed anybody—and I know that sounds crass—but you don’t know how that’s going to affect you,” he says. “There was a period of time when I would stay up as many hours as possible because I didn’t want to fall asleep. I’d have these horrific nightmares, and I’d wake up looking for my gun.”
He felt anger and confusion about what happened. But help came in surprising ways. After the accident, Yoxall received an outpouring of support from first responders, law enforcement, and military personnel. These were people who understood what he was going through, and their gratitude and encouragement helped him frame that brief moment in January as an emotional obstacle to overcome. “You walk up to it and say, ‘I’m going to figure out how to get around that,’” he says. “Or over it, through it—whatever it takes. That’s my mission.”
The other thing that helped was the friendship he’d developed with Ed Andersson, the Arizona state trooper he’d saved. Andersson was a twenty-eight-year veteran of law enforcement, and in his free time, he volunteers as a high school volleyball coach. “This is a good dude,” says Yoxall. “People respect the hell out of him.” If Yoxall hadn’t intervened, Andersson would have likely been killed. Today the two men meet regularly to chat over breakfast.
While he was focused on healing and showing gratitude to those who wanted to thank him in person, Yoxall’s Spartan ambitions seemed to be cooling. He didn’t have time to train properly, so as each race approached, he let it pass without signing up. But he still thought about the feeling of his first race back in 2015. “‘Life-changing’ is the best way I can describe it,” he says. “When I crossed that finish line, I knew I had to sign up for another one.” He ran his second race in Utah wearing a kilt, which has become his signature race-day attire. In Colorado Springs, he ran with a kilt and a broken hand. (“I’m not even going to lie and try to act like I’m Mr. Macho,” he says, when asked about grabbing obstacles. “It hurt.”)
But by the time the 2017 championship in Tahoe came around, he’d missed the whole season. He went anyway, watching from the sidelines and mentally preparing himself for the battle ahead. “It’s a long game,” he told himself. “I’m not quitting. I’m just setting myself up for victory and success.”
Thomas Yoxall & Preparing to Answer the Call
Back before the shooting, when he’d begun to plan his 2017 race schedule, Yoxall had put a Trifecta weekend in Hawaii on the calendar for 2018. As life intervened, it seemed unlikely that he’d make it. But after a year of battling through trauma, he’s ready to return to the course. He’ll start with Hawaii in August, and next year, he’ll go back for all the races he missed. “As long as I’m still breathing, I’m going to check that shit off my list,” he says. “Now it’s just in a different order. It’s what you do: You adapt. You do what you need to do to do to get across the finish line.”
The shooting, the trauma, the year of healing. They’re all just new obstacles. He’ll conquer them somehow. “You just focus on how you can,” he says. “Not why you can’t.” It’s an outlook that simultaneously keeps him moving and grounded at once. “Some people would construe what I did as heroic,” he says. “But by no means would I classify myself as a hero. I’m a photojournalist, I’m a father, and I’m a grandson. And I did what any responsible member of the human race should do, and that’s fucking help somebody who needed help.”
Late last year, Yoxall went in for a new tattoo. In addition to some work he had done on his left foot, he added a banner that reads: “Isaiah 6:8.” The verse reads: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Yoxall maintains that it has nothing to do with the shooting. And maybe that’s true. But it’s hard to ignore the connection. Few among us—even those who know how to fire a gun—have the fortitude or wherewithal to face danger, act fast, and save a man’s life at 4:30 a.m. on a cold, dark highway. But that’s why Yoxall trains. He’s preparing to answer the call, whenever and wherever it comes.