Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) has long used his disability as an inspiring story about overcoming adversity, but others who face similar challenges say his triumphant claims have become something of a running joke among some others who use wheelchairs.
The newly elected North Carolina Republican was paralyzed from the waist down following a 2014 car crash, when he was 18 years old, and has falsely boasted about his business success, acceptance into the Naval Academy and training for the Paralympic Games, reported The Nation.
"It's like a kid saying they want to play in the NBA when they're on their fourth-grade basketball team," said Paralympian athlete Amanda McGrory, who has earned seven medals in track and field.
The 25-year-old Cawthorn told a Christian podcast that he "had an opportunity" for track and field events in the Paralympics, but The Nation's reporting found no evidence of such an opportunity or any meaningful steps he'd taken to get there.
"You have to be involved in a team, usually your college or a local club," McGrory said, "and then from there, you establish times at qualifying races, and then from there you get scouted."
Cawthorn attended Patrick Henry College, a tiny Christian college in Virginia that doesn't offer a disabled sports program, and other wheelchair athletes don't recall ever seeing him at events.
"The community itself is small," said Robert Kozarek, a former elite wheelchair marathoner who never qualified for the Paralympic Games himself. "There's probably 50 [elite wheelchair racers] in the entire country, and we see each other four, five, six times a year, at least."
Cawthorn boasts about training for the Paralympics on social media, but other athletes aiming for the same goals say the lawmaker's claims about his intentions to break the world record for the 100-meter dash are ridiculous.
"Who is this guy?" McGrory recalls thinking when she saw Cawthorn's boast. "Why does he think he's going to break world records? This is really weird. I don't think he has any idea what he's talking about."
Brian Siemann, a two-time Team USA track and field athlete in the Paralympic Games, sheepishly admitted that Cawthorn's Instagram account had been a running joke among other elite wheelchair athletes.
"[My teammates and I] would share whatever posts [Cawthorn] put up and be like, 'Look at what batsh*t thing he said about the Paralympics this week," Siemann said. "The claims he was making were just so absurd, you have to find some humor in it."
Cawthorn has also claimed that he'd been accepted to the Naval Academy after then-U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) nominated him, but he had already been rejected before his life-altering injury, and his real-estate investment firm, SPQR Holdings LLC, has reported no income on its tax documents and listed only the lawmaker as an employee.
The lawmaker's Instagram account kicked up one of the largest controversies in his fledgling career, after he celebrated a "bucket list" visit to Adolf Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" retreat, although he denounced the Nazi "Fuhrer" as "supreme evil."
A guest columnist for his hometown Asheville Citizen Times called on the youngest lawmaker elected to Congress since 1797 to step down after helping to incite a violent insurrection Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, three days after he was sworn in, aimed at overturning Donald Trump's election loss.
"It's time for Congressman Cawthorn to resign," wrote contributor Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. "If he does not resign, he should be removed from office because he has violated his oath of office and specifically section 3 of the 14th Amendment."