Winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo was a childhood dream come true for Lebanon native Ryan Neiswender.
Diagnosed with the congenital disorder Arthrogryposis at birth, the 27-year-old Neiswender, who was reared in South Lebanon Township, started playing wheelchair basketball when he was eight.
“What went through my mind was, childhood dream come true, the hard work paid off,” said Neiswender. “Very rarely in your career can you say, ‘job done, mission accomplished’. Not until you put the gold medal around your neck and you feel the weight of the gold medal, and the weight of the gold medal reminded me of the weight of the moment and how much actually goes into earning something like this. Representing your country is so much bigger than yourself.”
Not only bigger than the individual but also much larger than the United States men’s wheelchair basketball team, who won back-to-back Paralympic gold medals and the seventh gold medal overall for the nation.
“This is not a Ryan Neiswender only gold medal,” said Neiswender, a 2013 graduate of Cedar Crest High School. “My family and my wife, the community, my teammates, coaches, support staff, there’s so many people who go into one gold medal and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that. And ultimately, for me, my faith is the most important thing in my life. When your foundation is rooted in Christ, for me, it gives me the freedom to go play at a really high level and enjoy what I do.”
The collective “faith” of the team was put to the test at least twice in the finals: When the U.S. team fell behind 8-0 to the host country Japan at the start of the 40-minute gold medal match and again down five points with under five minutes to play.
“If you look at the course of every game we played, there were moments where most teams would have folded and we rallied,” Neiswender said. “I mean, we were down five in the fourth quarter with five minutes to go in a gold medal winning match and I think we went on a 13-4 run to win the game. I just believe no matter the situation, the circumstances or the environment, we would have risen to the occasion.”
The circumstances given COVID-19 protocols at the games and the environment were a bit challenging, added Neiswender. The team had to quarantine a few days after they had played Iran and one of the Iranian players tested positive for the virus.
“After we won our semifinal game against Spain we came into the locker room and they broke the news that one of their players tested positive,” said Neiswender, “And since we had close contact, when we weren’t practicing or competing, we had to be self quarantined in our room. They brought our meals to our room, they came and took our laundry and we had to stay in our suite with our other three roommates after that game and until the finals against Japan.”
When asked if the lack of fans in an arena capable of seating 30,000 people hurt Japan and helped the United States in the finals, Neiswender said it was a “good question but one that we’ll never have an answer to.”
“My thoughts on that are, one, could it (fans) have spurred them on? Absolutely. Could it have put more pressure on them? Absolutely, said Neiswender. “Shooting in an empty gym the baskets can seem a lot wider when the pressure isn’t as high.”
Neiswender added that he believes the deep experience of the US team would have overcome even a full arena of rabid fans rooting for their home country, which is what the US team would have preferred to face instead of empty seats.
“We had an experienced group that has played in multiple Paralympics,” noted Neiswender, who played at his first Paralympics. “We had three guys with four Paralympics under their belt, one with five Paralympics under his belt, so they’ve played in the biggest moments, they’ve won the biggest games and they’ve been in front of the biggest crowds. If anything, I think having fans would have been more normal than not.”
Despite the virus and the frequent testing and tracking of their movements via a Google app, Neiswender and his teammates made the most of the opportunity to represent their country at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
“One of the biggest things I think is important not only for Olympic or Paralympic Games but for life, in general, was not to go into these games with any real expectations because there were so many variables that were going to come into play,” said Neiswender. “I think that allowed me – with no real expectations of what the games would be like – to be present where I was and to take each circumstance in stride.”
The virus still had, however, a huge impact on the games, Neiswender added.
“We played in stadiums that should have held 30,000 fans and the stands were empty,” said Neiswender. “We played the host country in the gold medal match. Just imagine that place packed with people cheering on Japan. That environment would have been totally different.”
The fact that the stands were also empty at the Opening and Closing ceremonies did not detract from how special those two events were to Neiswender and his fellow American athletes.
“They were still super special,” said Neiswender about the Opening and Closing ceremonies. “To have the opportunity to dress up with your teammates, take pictures, to walk in with the flag, but to have walked into a packed stadium and to have that emotion would have been pretty incredible. Still, in those moments, there were silver linings.”
Another memorable moment for Neiswender was when the gold medal was placed around his neck – not by an event official but by one of his teammates, which was an option presented to medal recipients.
“It was one of the coolest moments because I’ve arguably spent more time with my teammates this summer than I did my own family, so they’ve become my brothers,” said Neiswender. “And to have one of your brothers put that gold medal around my neck, you really wouldn’t want anyone else to do that.”
Another memory he’ll always cherish was the initial shock that Japan was conceding the game down 64-60 in the waning seconds when the opponents decided not to foul the US team in hopes of extending time for a potential comeback.
“We thought they were going to foul and when they didn’t, we were shocked,” said Neiswender. “You then look to your left and to your right and you realize the many hours that you went through to get to this moment. You think of your family that’s home and the wife you’ve spent months away from, and you think of your coach and the support staff that allowed you to get to that moment. So much goes through your mind.”
Gold medal match aside, Neiswender said the totality of the Paralympics can be an overwhelming experience and added that being prepared mentally is just as important as being physically ready for competition.
“There’s just so many different things going on in the Village, traveling to the competitions, you add COVID on top of it with multiple tests a day and preparing your mind mentally and your body physically to recover from eight games in 12 days,” said Neiswender. “There’s just so much happening in a small amount of time and everything that happens is a big moment, so you learn very quickly that you need to be selfish in the sense that you need to take care of your mind and body.”
A few days removed from winning a gold medal and the whirlwind events that followed that lifetime achievement hasn’t hit home just quite yet for Neiswender.
“I haven’t had the time to fully reflect on the journey itself but winning the medal and thinking of all the time I’ve spent with all of those people is very special,” added Neiswender.
Although he hasn’t decided whether he’ll try out for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, after being an alternative for the 2016 games in Brazil, Neiswender is content, for now, to bask in the moment and the reality of what it is like to be a Paralympian gold medal winner.
“I just want to enjoy this moment and I do plan to spend time with my family and go on a vacation,” said Neiswender. “I don’t know now if I will try out but I do feel I have more to give to this sport. But what that looks like I don’t know right now. Paris is three years away, though, and representing your country is always an honor.”
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