Against All Odds and Amidst COVID-19, Fellowship of Christian Athletes Alumnus Trains for Paralympics in Tokyo
Wheelchair Basketball Player Pursues Dream as Missionary to All-Ability Athletes after Experience with Fellowship of Christian Athletes
June 30, 2020
KANSAS CITY, Mo.—One of the country’s leading wheelchair basketball players who is training for the 2020 Summer Paralympics, which has been rescheduled to 2021, in Tokyo gained traction in more ways than one through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA, http://www.fca.org).
Ryan Neiswender was diagnosed as a toddler with arthrogryposis, a disability preventing his lower spine from sending signals to his quadriceps. But that didn’t stop him from chasing his love of basketball and his dream of playing professionally one day.
“When I hopped in the wheelchair for the first time to play basketball, moving around was very freeing,” Neiswender said. “I recognized my limitations were gone, and I had a freedom to pursue a craft and passions.”
Neiswender encountered FCA his freshman year playing wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois, a leading provider of access for students of all abilities. But by the time Neiswender reached college, his athletic success had come at the expense of his childhood faith.
That’s when he discovered that FCA cared about him not only as an athlete but also as a person made in the image of God. Through the love, camaraderie and influence he experienced in FCA, Neiswender learned how to use his athleticism and physical condition as a missionary. One powerful influence on Neiswender was FCA staff member Justin Neally.
“What some would view as a disability, Ryan’s seen God use for His glory,” Neally said. “Now he has a unique platform to be used by God in such a powerful way. He’s a unique part of the body of Christ, and he wants to share that and live that out.”
“The mission is every coach, every athlete,” Neally continued. “We’re in desperate need of missionaries who can speak into the all-ability sport communities well—those who can understand the unique needs. Ryan is certainly one of those people.”
Neiswender grew in his faith as he attended FCA Huddles and leadership meetings. He learned to share with others how God met him and changed him through sports. As Neiswender’s athletic pursuits grew, so did his desire to reach others with the Gospel. After graduating and serving on FCA staff, Neiswender traveled to Germany to play wheelchair basketball professionally—and with him went his desire to minister to others, just as he had been ministered to while in FCA.
Today, Neiswender and his wife, Lauren, live in the U.S., serving at a local church near the University of Illinois, where they met in college. He continues to train for the U.S. men’s Paralympic team, his sights set on representing the U.S. in Tokyo at the 2020 Summer Paralympics, which have been rescheduled for August 2021.
But Neiswender has another dream, which he picked up from FCA—a dream of reaching his fellow all-ability athletes with the Kingdom of God.
“FCA brought Lauren and me to know Jesus,” Neiswender said. “We’re so grateful for those who show up day-in and day-out to disciple coaches and athletes, and for what the organization does to further the Kingdom.”
Applying his Christian faith to professional sports can change an athlete’s response to social pressures that often haunt athletes, Neiswender says.
“I’ve made teams and missed teams; I know what both sides feel like,” Neiswender said. “In sports, it’s easy to wonder: ‘What do people write about me on social media? What’s the coach saying?’ I just want to be someone whose response is praise, worship and thanksgiving.”
In 2019, FCA hosted its first All-Ability Sport Forum to discern opportunities to expand FCA’s reach to include all-ability athletes competing at every level of sport.
Read more about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here, visit FCA’s website www.fca.org, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
To interview a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, contact Media@HamiltonStrategies.com, Patrick Benner, 610.584.1096, ext. 104, or Deborah Hamilton, ext. 102.