Our Athletes

One Step Further: Living and Thriving with Cerebral Palsy

I was born on Nov. 18, 1993, but my story really didn’t start until I was six months old.

Before birth, there were no signs of anything being wrong. However, while my mom was in labor she hemorrhaged, causing me to have a stroke affecting my right side.

And during the first few months of my life, my parents noticed some developmental delays. I never learned how to crawl and my right hand was fused in a fist.

We started seeing specialists. At around six months old, at Georgetown Hospital, I had a CT scan.

We were told I had cerebral palsy.

A photo of young RJ playing in a pumpkin patch.
RJ Nealon playing in the pumpkin patch as a little kid.

Imagine having a child and being told their life would not be easy. That they'll need plenty of assistance and independence will be hard to come by. I can only imagine what my parents felt during that moment.

Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect movement and muscle tone or posture. It occurs due to complications with an immature brain as it develops, most often before birth. It is the most common motor disability of childhood affecting one in every 345 kids and the majority of cases are known to be spastic which means a person’s muscles are stiff and their movements can be awkward.

For the next several years, I would see doctors and therapists. At John’s Hopkins, we saw Ben Carson, the famous doctor who separated conjoined twins joined at the back of the head. We wanted to see if he could help. But when he referred us elsewhere, I would have my first and only surgery fusing my thumb and stretching the tendons in my arm. I remember having a cool camouflage cast following the operation. I had a brace on my leg to help with the limp.

I was different. And because of that, I was bullied. Being so young, you don't really understand everything that's going on around you. You just want to play. You don't really have a care in the world. But I cared about what people thought of me.

Why me? It seemed unfair.

A photo of young RJ pretending to be a rockstar at his aunt's wedding.
RJ Nealon on stage at his aunt’s wedding singing with the band.

The teenage years are hard enough, but my disability often made them more difficult. I was shy. Intimidated. Embarrassed at times. And there'd be times I tried my best to hide my disability, fully knowing it was never going away. I’d purposely not volunteer to do tasks because I might need extra assistance, or people would notice my limp. I would read slower, so I’d pretend I finished when the other kids finished. I was embarrassed because I had to sit in the front row on the school bus with a seat belt. At events, I would avoid buying certain things (like food) because I worried I wouldn’t be able to carry it by myself.

The experiences in my life made me tough, determined and unwilling to give up. I was a kid just trying to keep up with the rest. And let me tell you, the expectations were high. The odds were against me. But even in those difficult situations—times I wanted to quit, wanted to give up—I always had a reason to keep pushing forward.

For everything I did, it felt like I was a step behind. I would figure out how to modify the things I love. My dad taught me to ride a bike one-handed. Starting in the grass, I would fall to the right side, having to teach myself how to shift my weight. I learned to swim. Out of the blue, I decided to take the swim test to swim in the deep end. Even though life was hard, the strategies I came up with helped me keep up. But I would quickly find my escape.

Sports.

I was good at sports. I was a whiz at remembering sports trivia and I was good at breaking down film and understanding the plays.

RJ just finished a race at a swim meet at a Special Olympics event.
RJ Nealon just finished a race at a Special Olympics event.

If I lost, I'd go back to the drawing board and not let it happen again. I didn't make excuses. I made sure to give it my all. It gave me the confidence and mamba-like mentality of refusing to quit. I was a Special Olympics Maryland athlete for nearly two decades and competed at the 2010 Special Olympics National Games in Nebraska. I was always aiming to be the best.

In life, for me, there's always a piece connected to sports.

College wasn't really an option growing up. Doctors told us I'd never be able to do mainstream learning. So, I believed it. But when I learned I could study sports journalism, I started to believe a different story. I started taking a few classes at community college. It was rough and I needed extra help. But I got by and eventually felt ready to apply to a four-year university.

I applied to five universities—the University of Alabama, Utah State, Boise State, Florida Gulf Coast and Coastal Carolina—and I got into every single one of them.

I was so nervous at orientation. I would be signing up for a full load of classes just like everyone else, at a great school—the University of Alabama. I remember thinking, "I hope I see someone else on campus who looks like me." My sister had graduated from Alabama in 2013, so the expectations were high. As always.

RJ takes a picture in front of Alabama's football stadium during orientation weekend.
RJ Nealon taking a picture in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium during orientation.

It was important the school I attended could accommodate my academic needs, but throughout my entire academic career, Alabama always went above and beyond to ensure I was successful. Student Support Services made sure I was on top of my studies. I made the Dean's List. For the first time in my life, I had exceptional grades. I was studying a field I had a passion for, and because of that, I graduated with honors in 2019. For all I have accomplished in many ways, wearing my class ring every day is what I am most proud of.

Now here I am, a communications fellow and athlete reporter with Special Olympics North America. My first journalism job post-graduation with the organization that first believed in me. And no matter where my career takes me, I will always get to say it started with Special Olympics.

I take a lot of pride in that.

My journey through life has been full of challenges, some of which most people will never experience. But I'm not sure I'd be where I am without my disability. My cerebral palsy has been the constant force that keeps me going. It was the motivating factor that made me believe anything is possible.

Growing up with a disability hasn't been easy and it took years to be entirely comfortable with who I am. I still have days when I ask myself, "why me?" But I look in the mirror and see how far I've come. I see the kids who look up to me. I see the barriers I break for individuals with disabilities. And it reminds me that my story is just beginning.

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