R.J. Nealon is always looking for the next challenge
"I just like to compete," said Nealon, whose competitive outlets have included motocross, mixed martial arts, swimming, football and basketball. The 21-year-old Chesapeake College student puts his competitive spirit to work in a daily effort to ensure that his Cerebral Palsy doesn’t limit either his opportunities to experience life or obtain a college education.
Nealon’s current goal is to become a national-level Paralympic swimmer. The Centreville resident is looking to repeat on the Paralympic level what he accomplished as a Special Olympian, including a trio of titles at the 2010 Special Olympics national championships.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Nealon said of the national championship meet, which divided competitors by times. "To know you were one of the best, and competing at the top level, was pretty special."
While Nealon has set lofty Paralympic goals, Nealon’s mother said her son has made a habit of achieving goals others see as unreachable.
"I remember when we first took him to get a bike and the guy said, ’He’ll never be able to ride it,’ " recalled Barbara Nealon. "He rides dirt bikes, kayaks, and just recently has gotten into mixed martial arts. That’s been a little bit difficult because of the weakness on the right side of his body, but he compensates."
Nealon – who has a solid 2.8 college grade-point average – said he’s compensated on the academic side by working hard and taking advantage of Chesapeake’s tutoring options. "I have trouble remembering formulas and big words, such as parts of the body we go over in science," said Nealon, who said his best subject is English. "I’ve had to work with multiple tutors. It’s been a struggle, but with hard work and support I manage to get by."
"He has struggles, but he refuses to let them get him down," said Associate Professor Linda Earls, who had Nealon in class for two Chesapeake College English courses. "His competitive nature as an athlete goes hand-in-glove with his attitude about classwork."
Jennifer Hawley, who is currently Nealon’s instructor for General Psychology, said Nealon uses planning and plain hard work to compensate for the learning challenges he faces.
"He works ahead of time," Hawley said. "I put a lot of things on Canvas [the college’s online learning management system] so he can see notes and other class materials outside of class. I think that works really well for him."
Besides that, Hawley indicated Nealon functions like any other conscientious student.
"He’s attentive, he asks questions, he’s engaged and he works well collaboratively," said Hawley. "He’s a good kid, and he’s a good student."
Earls – whose son, Ryan, was coach of Nealon’s Kent Island Unified Basketball team – said Nealon has the innate ability to inspire others.
"R.J. decided to do a poetry analysis of Anthony Robles, the three-time all-American from Arizona State who wrestles with one leg," recalled Earls. "He presented to us ’Unstoppable,’ an incredible poem about how regardless of who you are, you can become a champion. At the end, everyone in the class was in tears."
Nealon, who is always seeking a challenge, has a willing partner in his grandfather, Quentin Englerth. Englerth took Nealon on a memorable, two-week trip to the Amazon when Nealon was a high school junior.
"I went to the Amazon River on spring break," recalled Nealon, who went piranha-fishing during the trip. "It was interesting to see how different it was – how they live compared to how we live in the United States. It made me look at life differently – to be more thankful and not take for granted what we have."
Englerth also introduced his grandson to skydiving.
"I love to sky dive," said Nealon. "My grandfather texted me one day and wrote, ’When you come down to Florida, can we go skydiving?’ I said, ’Why not?’ I’ve been four times so far."
Nealon’s long-range swimming goals include competing for a spot in the Paralympic residency program at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center (CSOTC). The CSOTC program, according to the Team USA website, includes "housing, dining, training facilities, local transportation, recreational facilities, athlete services and professional development programs."
Nealon said he likes the mix of athletics and academics, which he could continue in Colorado.
"I just love playing sports and I enjoy school a lot," said Nealon.
Nealon, who will swim in a Special Olympics state qualifier next month in Easton at the YMCA of the Chesapeake, said swimming became his focus as a high school sophomore after he had to stop play football for medical reasons.
"I played jayvee football at Kent Island [High] until I started having a lot of seizures. That’s about the time I started swimming competitively," said Nealon, who was a reserve safety/wide receiver for the Buccaneers. "I started swimming as a young kid because my neighborhood had a swim team. I liked how it was just me, depending on myself."
Nealon – who won 50- and 100-meter freestyle national titles and participated on a winning relay team at the 2010 Special Olympics – is hoping to be ready to compete as a Paralympian at the Can-Am Open December 10-12 in Bismarck, N.D.
"He wants to train more and challenge himself more," said Barbara Nealon, who said the Nealons are seeking donated pool time and coaching time to help R.J. achieve his goals. In addition, the family is in the process of setting up a "Go Fund Me" account where people interested in helping can make donations.