As a gold medal winner in men’s wheelchair basketball at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan this past summer, South Lebanon Township native Ryan Neiswender is making the most of the opportunity that’s been presented to him.
“I haven’t changed as a person after winning the gold medal,” said Neiswender. “But it does give more visibility and allows me to have a deeper impact because of the platform that comes with winning the gold medal. Something I’ve always wanted to do is to be able to impact and give back to the game and the next generation of people with disabilities.”
For Neiswender, winning a gold medal has afforded him a platform to be even more of a messenger and an ambassador for those with disabilities. Neiswender was diagnosed with the congenital disorder arthrogryposis at birth.
Arthrogryposis, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, is an incurable condition limiting the range of motion of a person’s joints.
“My goal is, and I believe that every generation should, continue to move the needle forward and educate the public that we (people with disabilities) have so much to give to society and have a huge impact with businesses, with work, in everyday life, and in sports rather than thinking of disabilities as something that limits us,” said Neiswender. “It’s really our superpower; it’s what makes us unique. When we leverage that effectively, we are able to impact society.”
Neiswender is having an impact on society in several ways.
“Winning the gold medal only magnifies that platform to be able to speak to people like you, to speak to corporations that are Fortune 500 companies and to bring visibility to something that, until five or seven years ago, wasn’t talked about all that much,” he added. “Part of it is education, part of it is breaking down preconceived notions.”
One preconceived notion that Neiswender is working to change about disabled people is that they need assistance because they have a disability.
“Rather than asking the person what they can and can not do, they make the decision for someone with a disability and rob them of the opportunity to A: Do things on their own and become independent; B: Take on more responsibility in a work environment; and C: Be able to grow as individuals that are contributing members of society,” he said. “So this is a really good time to have some raw conversations as to how we, the United States of America and globally, can grow to have more empathy and understanding.”
Although he originally envisioned enjoying downtime after the games ended, Neiswender’s life has been a whirlwind since returning from Japan.
Since taking a much-deserved vacation to Cancun with his wife following the team’s gold-medal performance, Neiswender returned to his job at Visa, where he is now a strategy and operations manager on the company’s Global Risk Team. He also has returned to training and conditioning in the gym, he’s played in a 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball tournament and he’s been a speaker at six corporate events as part of National Disabled Employment Awareness Month in October.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘busy’ because I think we should make time for the things that are important to us, but I do think my schedule is full and I am able to do things that really energize me,” Neiswender said. “Between the work I do at Visa, where I took on a new role, to training for wheelchair basketball, where I am working with a new shooting coach and is really cool, to moving to a new city and adapting to a new environment to doing speaking engagements, it’s been a really exciting time.”
Serving as a paid speaker at corporate events has presented Neiswender a highly visible platform to educate and demonstrate to others on a mass scale that people with disabilities can achieve success. Some other topics Neiswender covers include “How to Build a Winning Corporate Culture,” “How to Navigate Change Effectively,” and “Disability in the Workplace.”
“I structure the talks around stories from the pinnacle of my career at the highest level of sport, the Paralympics, and other tournaments I’ve played in, to illustrate strategies and stories to help teams and organizations reach their untapped potential,” he explained. “I take people on this journey via the stories that are part of my career. I think of the journey as a train that has different stops and I’ll stop in the middle of the story and illustrate the strategy I am talking about because people remember stories. They remember stories more than anything else.”
Away from the spotlight of the speaking circuit, Neiswender, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, has also made an impact on a more personal level with people who live in the Lebanon Valley.
“I recently got to talk to a local family and one of the hardest things to deal with is facing what you don’t know,” said Neiswender. “In wheelchair basketball, there is so much gear and it is really expensive – especially if you are just starting out in the sport. There are program chairs that are available but they may not fit you. This family was tired of having a chair that did not fit their child, and if you are going to spend money to get a chair, you want to be informed so you can make the best decision on behalf of your child.”
Neiswender is grateful and happy to be able to help others – whether via large corporate events or on a more personal level.
“Just being able to help out people in the local community I think is really cool,” said Neiswender. “Those are things that my parents and I had to learn as we went because there was no playbook for it. Thanks to social media and newspaper stories … my name has been able to get out to a place where people are reaching out and we are able to connect, and I think that is a beautiful thing.”
When he was a young child, Neiswender had a dream that was shared by many boys and girls for generations – especially by those who inspire to perform in athletic competitions.
“General Mills sends their speakers the cover of a Wheaties box with their picture on it,” said Neiswender, whose picture shows him dribbling a basketball while wearing his U.S. men’s team jersey. “It’s been amazing because so many people have asked me, ‘How can I buy it? When will it be available in stores?’”
Although his picture will not be mass produced for Wheaties boxes, Neiswender believes it would be a great opportunity for General Mills to spread awareness about the impact that those who are disabled can make in the world.
“One of the things that would be cooler than just having me on the cover would be to have us on the podium winning gold,” said Neiswender. “This is a team sport, I love my teammates and my teammates are my brothers. Better than having a Wheaties box with your picture would be the 12 guys you spent so much time together pursuing gold. It would be super cool, unique and a differentiator to see 12 guys in wheelchairs on the podium receiving gold on the cover of a Wheaties box.”
When interviewed in early September for LebTown about his experiences in Tokyo, Neiswender wasn’t sure if he would try out for the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, France.
In the past two months, however, he has come to a decision.
“The plan right now is to be in the 2024 Games,” he said.
Although his plate is very full, including the time he spends training and conditioning and working with a shooting coach in preparation for the 2024 Games, Neiswender is always open to new opportunities.
“Life is full of twists and turns and you never know what opportunity is going to come knocking on your door,” he said. “I’ll never say that the things that I have are all that I’m ever going to have. But right now, my focus is my faith, my family, basketball, my job and speaking engagements.”
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