Danelle Umstead competes in PyeongChang. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
For Ryan Neiswender, winning gold at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 was the reflection of all the help he has received throughout his career.
“Not everyone can say they accomplished their childhood dream,” he said. “It happened in one moment, but really everyone helped make it possible. … So many people in my journey poured into me wisdom and knowledge to get me where I am today.”
Neiswender is a 28-year-old member of Team USA’s men’s wheelchair basketball team. Tokyo 2020 was his first Games.
Neiswender grew up in Pennsylvania, and he learned of wheelchair basketball and adaptive sport in a newspaper article. When he started playing wheelchair basketball, his parents would send newsletters to locals, asking them to contribute toward Neiswender’s equipment, travel and wheelchair basketball chair. Wheelchair basketball chairs alone cost $5,000 to $7,000, and they are not covered by insurance.
But now, with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee equaling payout for Paralympic medalists, there may be more opportunities for individuals with disabilities to get involved in Para sport. The USOPC increased pay for Paralympians by 400 percent.
“(Equal pay) signifies the fact that we weren’t getting compensated equally,” Neiswender said. “That means they see us on an equal playing field, which is a huge step in the right direction.”
Para alpine skier Danelle Umstead said she and her guide and husband Rob used their savings and created fundraisers to pursue their dreams early in their career.
“Hearing the news about the equal pay for medaling Paralympians and Olympians is amazing,” Danelle said. “These are some of the steps that are needed to help athletes train and grow the movement. As Paralympians, we work and train as hard as our Olympic teammates, and we are honored to represent Team USA.
“This legitimizes what we Paralympians do as athletes.”
Now, Neiswender and Umstead are grateful their sponsors — Per4Max and Visa for Neiswender and Toyota for Umstead — help make their Paralympic dreams come true.
“I just can’t say enough about them,” Neiswender said.
Persons with disabilities as a whole are twice as likely to become impoverished, according to a study out of the National Disability Institute. This, the report found, is due to many reasons, including higher unemployment, limited educational opportunities and/or institutional barriers.
A U.S. Census report in 2019 stated that persons with disabilities earn 87 cents of every dollar earned by someone without a disability.
Neiswender appreciates the pay raise for Paralympians, but he said he believes it will eventually make a greater impact.
“When compensation comes and money comes, I think more visibility comes, as well,” he said. “That, I think, will be the driving force of people coming up and participating in Paralympics in the future.”
Neiswender said the increased media exposure will also help move the Paralympic Movement in the right direction.
NBC Universal aired a record 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage of Tokyo, which included 200-plus hours on NBC, NBCSN and the Olympic Channel. More than 1,000 hours of coverage were streamed across Peacock and on NBC Sports digital platforms.
The Tokyo Games were the first to land a primetime spot on NBC.
“More than ever before, I have coworkers, friends and just random people reaching out, and saying, ‘I started watching (the Paralympic Games) because you were on TV, but I ended up watching wheelchair basketball and the Paralympics because I became a genuine fan,’” he said. “That’s a powerful statement.”
Neiswender will chase the Paris 2024 Games, and he is excited to see what the next three years will bring. He said the five-year gap between Tokyo and Rio allowed Team USA men’s wheelchair basketball to establish a close relationship.
While the athletes are spread across the country, they remained in contact with one another over WhatsApp and FaceTime.
“Four to five years is definitely a long period of time,” Neiswender said while on a post-Tokyo vacation in Cancun with his wife Lauren. “We’re all over the country, but I think one of the strengths of our team is our ability to check in and to stay close with one.”
Ryan is a 2017 kinesiology graduate from the University of Illinois. He served instrumental roles in developing the Illini’s offense and defense, finding open buckets and chasing down the ball.
On Team USA, he had the luxury of playing alongside familiar faces in Illinois alumni Steve Serio and Brian Bell.
That probably didn’t hurt in the team’s gold-medal performance.
“Obviously, there were a lot of twists and turns along that four-year journey, but we had the confidence in knowing that we had put the needed work in to be a gold medalist.”