Rising to the Challenge: R. J. Nealon

Dec 12, 2019

Nealon at ESPN Headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

R. J. Nealon has always craved competition. He is a national champion swimmer, a national runner-up in football and basketball, holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jujitsu and is a lifelong wrestler. On Saturday, Nealon graduates with a degree in journalism, and—like all his other accomplishments to date—he didn’t let his cerebral palsy hold him back.

Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect movement and muscle tone or posture. It’s caused by damage that occurs to the brain as it is in development, most often before birth. Complications during childbirth caused Nealon to suffer a stroke which resulted in his cerebral palsy (CP). His experience with CP affects the right side of his body, which limits his range of motion and functionality.

Nealon competed in the Special Olympics for 15 years, where he won three gold medals at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games. Ever the athlete, Nealon also competed in sports outside of the Special Olympics realm, alongside high school classmates who would go on to be NCAA Division-1 student athletes.

“I had to train harder than anyone else,” said Nealon. “Swimming with those guys helped me a lot because they pushed me; they wouldn’t let me modify things. They made me do things the right way.”

What Nealon learned from his experiences on the field, on the mat and in the pool easily translated to his success as a student. In Summer 2019, he worked 10 weeks as a programming intern for ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut—scheduling television content network. The fast-paced work environment and constant motion at the ESPN offices fueled his desire to one day be a senior sportswriter for ESPN.

Nealon at the 2019 X Games, where he produced X Games content for the ESPN Twitter account.

“The experience I had at ESPN—I want to be in that competitive atmosphere,” said Nealon. “I want to be working with people who are the best at what they do, who push me every day. That doesn’t just make me better; it makes them better too. I know It’s going to take some work, but I’m willing to do the work to get back there.”

His experience is already paying off. Not only did it open Nealon’s eyes to the full scope of the industry—in front of the camera and behind the scenes—it also further developed his skill as a writer. He’s is currently working on a story he pitched to ESPN about a Special Olympian. Nealon says that writing and editing this story with input from Rebecca Nordquist at ESPN have improved his writing for the Crimson White and WVUA 23, where he serves as a digital sports reporter.

Beyond his goal of becoming an accomplished sportswriter, Nealon serves as an advocate for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. He’s currently scheduled as a keynote speaker for the Special Olympics 2020 Law Enforcement Torch Run International Conference in National Harbor, Maryland in, September 2020 and hopes to one day present a Ted Talk to elevate the platform of his message.

Whether as an athlete or an intern, Nealon embraces the challenge—choosing to be pushed and made better by his peers rather than running away from the heat of the trials. As he graduates on Saturday and begins his next chapter, countless challenges surely await him, and he intends to answer them.