RJ Nealon is a Special Olympics North American Fellow and Athlete Reporter. RJ also won three medals at the Special Olympics National Games, as well as a state championship in unified basketball with Special Olympics Maryland. RJ is working to be a sports reporter, has graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in journalism, and was also chosen to be an intern with ESPN. If you listened to the previous episode with ESPN they mentioned him, and at the time, they were unaware that I even knew who he was. RJ is a passionate advocate for unified sports, the Special Olympics, and inclusion in all settings - which are all topics he covers in this episode.
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Host - Naveh Eldar 0:16
Welcome to the landscape, a podcast to shed light on the people programs and businesses that are changing the landscape for individuals with any type of disability. I'm your host Naveh Eldar. Last episode you heard from leadership at ESPN on their relationship with the Special Olympics. This week. I'm excited to continue looking at this global movement from another perspective. Today's guest is RJ Nealon who is a Special Olympics North America communications fellow and athlete reporter RJ has won three medals at the Special Olympics National Games, and in 2016, he won a unified basketball state championship with Special Olympics Maryland. The episode begins with RJ telling us about the start of his love for sports.
RJ Nealon 1:05
So I got involved with sports at a really young age. My dad introduced me to college football. One of the earliest memories I remember having was watching the 2006 Vols bowl. Texas was USC Vince Young versus Reggie Bush. You know, that was one of the earliest memories I have watching that game and that really sparked my interest in football. So I did not start playing football until later, I started playing soccer. Did that for two or three seasons, played goalie. It was really fun. We went undefeated all three years. But I really, my love was in football. So I started playing football for the little league in my hometown and played safety and wide receiver.
Unknown Speaker 1:54
And how old were you? How old are you here?
Unknown Speaker 1:57
I was a vowel. When I started playing football, I was probably about nine, nine or 10. I was in elementary school, fourth or fifth grade. And I fell in love with it. And then that carried on over into baseball. I fell in love with the New York Yankees. My favorite player growing up was Derek Jeter. One number two, all growing up throughout my years of playing baseball. But an interesting story is when I wanted to play baseball, we went out to the Little League and the president told me I couldn't play because I could only use one hand. He said, you know, we don't have a spot for you. I guess you did not know who Jim Abbott was. But I went up to him and I went out and try it out for the Calvin Klein league travel baseball team, which is basically like AAU for baseball, and I played that.
Unknown Speaker 2:53
And so for the listeners Why, why can you own Why do you only have use of one hand?
Unknown Speaker 2:57
So I have cerebral palsy and epilepsy when I was Born, I suffered a stroke that affects the whole right side of my body. So I have minimal use of my arm, and minimal use of my leg. But it only motivated me more to be that much better at sports. Sports was my way of proving myself and my way of showing that yes, I can do anything I put my mind to. And the story goes on from there. I mean,
Unknown Speaker 3:26
sports is everything in in. So how were you introduced to the Special Olympics? Like what stage did that happen?
Unknown Speaker 3:34
I was in elementary school around the same time I was playing football, fourth or fifth grade and my parents I had actually sent a letter to Special Olympics and it took a few months to get a answer. But we found out we had a local program while I lived on the eastern shore of Maryland. And my parents were like, hey, let's let's try this out. Let's see how you like it. If you like it, we can Keep doing if you don't like it, we can just play baseball and football. And so I went out for basketball, Special Olympics basketball. And I was the youngest kid on the team. I was a smallest kid, the slowest kid, the skinniest kid. And you know it, my love for basketball started going up, looked up the LeBron James and still do Kevin doing all those guys, Kevin Durant's actually from Maryland, so he's my favorite player. So, you know, I started Special Olympics at a young age and competed on and off for 15 years, I'd say, don't compete anymore, but I'm still heavily involved.
Unknown Speaker 4:42
And so explain how does the Special Olympics work? Because not everybody knows and so like, at what age does it start? And then like, what levels of competition are there?
Unknown Speaker 4:52
Yeah, so they have so competition so I said, I believe eight seven, and they have state level tournament. national level tournaments and Ward level tournament. I've competed both at the state and national level. I've competed in basketball, cycling and kayaking football, tried a golf tried golf as well. But my main sports were basketball and swimming. You know, Special Olympics is a lot more than just athletics. And that's one thing I don't think a lot of people realize. You know, Eunice Kennedy Shriver back in the 60s if it weren't for her, and a Sister Rosemary and Eunice person disability policy reforms to a brother JFK, you know, Special Olympics may have never been started. So it was because of her that we had a platform for people with intellectual disabilities. They had a platform to compete on. But it wasn't until I got older, that I realized, Hey, this is much more than sports. It's about leadership, education and health and to be honest with you As an athlete leader, I've learned more about the movement and the power of inclusion than I ever did competing as an actual athlete.
Unknown Speaker 6:10
What are some of the ways that they try to educate people or just get people to be healthy? All those things that you mentioned? What are some programs that they have?
Unknown Speaker 6:17
Yes, so they have young athletes program, which is for athletes and children below the age seven who cannot compete yet. They also have a unified division, which I think is so cool. So unified division is athletes with disabilities and a unified partner, able bodied athletes. For example, my brother was a unified partner for my special olympics basketball team, and that transformed into high schools, and now they're doing college programs. So the Special Olympic programs on college university campuses, you know, there's a lot of ways to get educated and they have a healthy, healthy Messenger's at the wood games and National Games and state games. They have a, you know, an area where athletes can get their eyesight checked. You know, it's it's really a lot more than just sports.
Unknown Speaker 7:15
It's so Mr. Ambassador and we'll put you on the spot. So what what is the absolute heart? What is at the heart of the Special Olympics?
Unknown Speaker 7:24
The heart of the Special Olympics is Eunice Kennedy Shriver and its athletes. She put Special Olympic athletes out there in front of the world, in Chicago, Illinois, and that became a huge movement for inclusion. And beyond that, it's the volunteers. It's the coaches. It's the families. It's the families of the coaches and volunteers. Because that is what keeps the blood pumping in Special Olympics. You know, like I said earlier, Olympics is a lot more than just athletics. It started with just athletics. And look how far we've gotten the word games with just held in Abu Dhabi. It was a first event of its kind in the Middle East. Right. That's how far and how powerful Special Olympics has become.
Unknown Speaker 8:18
But you excelled on a national level. Is that correct?
Unknown Speaker 8:22
Yes, in 2010 in Nebraska, I went out there as a swimmer for the state of Maryland. And I won a couple medals. And you know, it was it was awesome. But the takeaway from that trip that I remember the most was one of the volunteers was a swimmer for the University of Nebraska and I started talking to and she actually gave me a swim cap like an official Nebraska swim cat, and she introduced me to Nebraska football players. And they actually gave gave me a tour of the stadium. gave me a tour of the locker room. Man, I was in heaven.
Unknown Speaker 9:04
So who are you more excited to talk to the swimmer or the football players?
Unknown Speaker 9:08
Definitely the football player.
Unknown Speaker 9:10
Definitely the football players, you know, Nebraska is a staple of college football. I mean, this stadium has been sold out for decades and the walk on that field, the walk through the tunnel, the walk in a locker room, I just had a feeling like, Man, this is what I'm supposed to do, like sports is what I'm supposed to be doing. It was a unbelievable experience and so thankful for it.
Unknown Speaker 9:37
Before we move on from that, because I want to talk about how sports has become a bigger part of your life. Right? It's become part of your studies and it's hope, you know, it's going to be a part of your career. But before we get there, what are the what else happens at the National Special Olympics level? Because that's that's televised, right? Is there a lot of you know A lot of mingling between competitors is do you guys have parties? What what goes on during that time?
Unknown Speaker 10:07
Yeah, so the last USA games in 2018 was held in Seattle, Washington and I was able to go out there as an athlete reporter with Special Olympics smiling. That's why I was interning and you know, it's it opens up with a huge opening ceremony. It was held in Husky Stadium. So they each state watched in, they had marshmallow the music artists perform their Charlie puth perform. You know, an ESPN is a big part of that they televise the competition on ABC and ESPN.
Unknown Speaker 10:45
Right. So and so what did you do as an athlete reporter,
Unknown Speaker 10:50
so I covered all of special Special Olympics Maryland. The athletes, I was mostly doing track and field and basketball. But while out there, I had the opportunity to interview ESPN, Kevin Gandhi, one on one. And what's funny about that is I was strictly a vida at the time. Right? So that was my first ever on camera interview. So, I mean, most people that start in sports journalism starts at the really small, local level, with high school sports or whatnot. And here I am interviewing Kevin Gandhi, one of my role models for my first ever on camera interview. How did it go? It went well, um, I think it went well. I mean, looking back at it, I'm like, who I was not very good. But the questions were great. And he complimented the question, so I knew I was doing something right. And it was at that moment that I realized, I want to do on camera stuff too. Like I don't want to just be a Vita.
Unknown Speaker 11:56
When is the next game supposed to be? How often Do they have the Special Olympics?
Unknown Speaker 12:01
So Special Olympics state tournament every year. So right now, unfortunately, because of COVID-19 all the tournament's have become virtual. So athletes are, you know, doing track and field or fitness activities at home login times and stuff like that online and getting medals and ribbons because of that. But typically, that'd be a weekend and you'd have a block party, opening ceremonies, competitions and dance dances.
Unknown Speaker 12:43
The new that's, that's on the state level
Unknown Speaker 12:45
that's on the state level. Yes. And then the USA games on 2022 in Orlando, Florida. And then the world games are also in 2022 in Russia and then 2023 in Berlin, Germany.
Unknown Speaker 13:03
So at what point? Did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? And what did you do about it? And then obviously, this is when you decided that you want it to be on camera as well. So, so now this has turned into something that you want to do as your career. So what steps have you taken?
Unknown Speaker 13:20
So in 2014, I was attending a local community college, and I needed to take an elective class and I signed up for journalism one on one, and I was not the best vitae. But you know, I had to take it. So the class assignment was, we had a school newspaper, and I was the I was assigned to sports beat. And the professor finally was like, Hey, you know, your writing needs work. But your knowledge of sports is there. Have you ever thought about going into a career of sports writing? And I was like, No, not really. I'd always thought like you needed to be an ex pro athlete to have connections even before you get started to do something like that. And he was like, it's a very competitive field, but he was like, you have the knowledge to do it. Right. And from then on, I started signing up for more communication classes, decided to transfer to Alabama for the athletic department and the school newspaper and local television station. So that's, you know, that that was a start of it.
Unknown Speaker 14:33
And so where are you right now on your journey to reaching your goal of working in the field.
Unknown Speaker 14:39
I am a communications fellow and athlete reporter with Special Olympics North America. So I invite you know, unfortunately, all the tournament's were canceled for the remainder of the year. Sure, but that that has really helped me, you know, get more involved with social media and via a lot more long form narrative. A story's human interest stories. So that that's why I am right now, my one of my goals is I want to be a correspondent for Special Olympics at the National and award levels, and throughout the year, do human interest stories. And I'd love to do that with ESPN one day.
Unknown Speaker 15:21
So when we're recording this, the episode with ESPN hasn't hasn't come out yet. Right? And so you haven't heard it at this point in time. But when I was speaking to them, your name came up. They said, Did you interned with them and they said that you did an amazing job. And it was interesting because they had zero knowledge that I was going to talk to you and so I just kind of like laughed at myself it up how the world connected everything, but So tell me about that. What was that internship like what did you do with ESPN?
Unknown Speaker 15:53
It was a an amazing experience. So my going back starting first menu at Allah Bama, you know, I sat down with my advisor and put listed out a list of goals that I wanted to achieve before I graduated. And a lot of them were just covering alabama football for the school newspaper covering high school football. But one of the biggest goals was interned at ESPN. That was the ultimate goal. And I had applied junior year did not even get an interview, connected, bettered myself in sports journalism, and applied again, and I got an interview. And the interviews were really, really hard, long process, but I got it. And I was like, wow, one of 61 interns, you know, out of thousands of applications, right. It was an unbelievable experience. I worked in a programming department with the social content team primarily with X Games. So that was a really cool experience.
Unknown Speaker 17:02
Did you get to do any reporting? When you were doing that? Did you have anything released?
Unknown Speaker 17:06
Yes. So, you know, for the most part of the summer, I was plugging in schedules of games and TV content into the guide. But I also worked with the X Games. And with that, I was able to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the summer X Games. And for those of you who don't know, Special Olympics, has a unified division with X Games. It was the first summer X Games unified BMX race, okay. And I reached out to one of the editors who works with Special Olympics at ESPN. And I asked if I could pitch a story. And she said, Yes, let's do it. So I found a really compelling story on a Minnesota athlete and worked for the rest of the year. It was published in JAMA. Anyway, she helped me, you know, structure it. And that was a unbelievable experience. I mean, I think every reporters dream is to be published in ESPN. Right. And it was because of my hard work, dedication and really my relationship with Special Olympics that, you know, it all came together and was made possible.
Unknown Speaker 18:24
And so this is the second time we've talked about unified sports, right? You talked about it with your brother and and now we're talking about the X Games also have a unified division. So what is that? What's happening with that movement? How many sports do you know how many sports are involved with it? And why do you think it's important?
Unknown Speaker 18:44
So I, I'm not entirely sure. But there's a good amount of sports that are involved with it. I know for me, I mean, I always played on a unified basketball team for Special Olympics. I had never competed on a chip. Additional Special Olympics basketball team. Mm hmm. Um, but it's now starting to get into high schools. And they're starting to have teams. And at the college level, they're starting to have programs, you know, it's, it's become a huge movement. And it's not just in the United States, it's other countries as well. Nice. So do you think that eventually there may be kind of like with the X Games like kind of a world competition with just unified teams, I would love to see that. So I actually competed with in unified sports when I was at the University of Alabama. And I'd like to stay involved behind the scenes and I would personally love to see you know, teams have divisions and conferences and have a full schedule. I'm competing for championships. I think that would be so cool, because Alabama was in the sec, and it was awesome. The SEC schools that had Special Olympic programs. How cool would it be if there was a sec unified division? A big 10 unified division? I mean, I think that would be awesome. It would be
Unknown Speaker 20:11
You're right. Like it gets me excited here and you talk about it like that. I'm from Ohio, by the way. So two things, one big 10 obviously into I'm from Akron. So you mentioned LeBron James earlier who's also from Akron. So we have we have respect for each other but a rivalry Kevin Durant, LeBron. Let's not get into it right now.
Unknown Speaker 20:31
Yes. Are you a state fan?
Unknown Speaker 20:33
I am. I didn't go there. But I am a fan. Especially when they're winning. I shouldn't say that. I
Unknown Speaker 20:38
like them even when they're not winning. Hey, they beat Alabama a couple years ago. So
Unknown Speaker 20:42
there you go. That was a that was a great great game and it was like the, the jumping board for Zeke right? Like Exactly, yeah, people were like, okay, for real hundred percent. Okay, so now you are an ambassador right for the Special Olympics. So how Does that happen? And what are your duties as an ambassador?
Unknown Speaker 21:03
You know, it started when I stopped competing and turned over into an athlete leader and self advocate. Last week, I spoke to a college summit. So there was several colleges that have unified divisions and I was a keynote speaker. I just shared my story, what unified sports mean to me and where I'd like to see unified sports to go in the future. I have done, you know, keynote speeches for opening ceremonies. And my next goal is, you know, I want to do a TED talk on Special Olympics. That's like, my main goal. But I'd like to travel to different high schools, colleges, businesses and do public speaking engagements. I think, you know, the power of Special Olympics and the power of inclusion needs to be heard by every community. And I want To be the one that shares that message,
Unknown Speaker 22:03
you're doing a ton of on the field work. But I know that you also graduated, obviously, what did you get your degree in?
Unknown Speaker 22:11
I got my degree in sports journalism with a minor in Communication Studies.
Unknown Speaker 22:16
Okay. And are you furthering your education?
Unknown Speaker 22:18
That's my goal right now. I'm looking at graduate school. I'm not so when I want to exactly go back. It's between now and five years, obviously. And then I'd like to get my doctorate. Eventually, I'd like to teach at the university level.
Unknown Speaker 22:35
And so what are what are the next immediate next steps for you if you're looking at college in the next couple years, but what's the what's immediately right in front of you right now?
Unknown Speaker 22:44
You know, I'd love to continue my career with Special Olympics. I have a fellowship right now. So my term is December 31. Is my last day I'd love to stay involved. Love continue sharing stories and Honestly, the next step, you know, it's continued writing, whether that be with Special Olympics or with a newspaper or a new station, whatever, is the best next option for me to reach my end goal of ESPN is what's next.
Unknown Speaker 23:19
So you've been in a lot of settings, right? You've been in the Special Olympics, you've been in some major university, did some internships at one of the biggest companies in the world. And we keep on bringing up this word inclusion. So obviously, inclusion in sports is just one segment. Can you tell me your thoughts on inclusion? On a bigger level? Like what is the importance of inclusion? in the workplace in the everywhere?
Unknown Speaker 23:49
Yeah. So the importance of inclusion is I mean, everything when it talks about the society we live in, I know from my perspective, You know, it was very difficult sometimes to feel included in college classes or to prove to editors that I couldn't make the deadline. I mean, I had an editor once told me like, we can't send you to cover the high school game because we don't, you may not be able to meet the deadline. And so it's been important for me to, you know, stay at the top of my game and spread the message of inclusion that everybody deserves a shot. Everybody deserves a chance. And that's one of the things Kevin Gandhi told me in my interview with him, all I wanted was a shot. And that's all I want is a shot. And, you know, it's important because I can do things you can't do and you can do things I can't do. When you put those two things together. extraordinary things happen.
Unknown Speaker 24:54
Were you ever at a point where you felt discouraged and you just really had to leave on, you know, talking to a friend, it's a family to help you get through it because you felt like kind of the odds were stacked against
Unknown Speaker 25:07
you. Absolutely 100% multiple times throughout college, doing science and math classes, I just could not do it. Even with the accommodations I had, I just could not do it. And, you know, I had to sit down with my advisor and say, Hey, is this something that I can actually do? Because I was discouraged that I wanted to quit. But I knew you know, my stoy can help just one other person, then I had to keep moving forward. Because teachers and editors would shoot me down sometimes and I had to use my love for sports and my end goal to keep me moving forward. One of the examples is Jason vendetti. He As a MLB commentator with ESPN, he has cerebral palsy. Mm hmm. So that those type of things keep me moving forward when I'm discouraged.
Unknown Speaker 26:11
Where do you think you would be? If you hadn't got involved with a Special Olympics? Have you ever thought about that?
Unknown Speaker 26:17
Unknown Speaker 26:20
I can tell you this much. I wouldn't be where I am. I wouldn't be talking to you. If it wasn't for Special Olympics, I wouldn't have attended the University of Alabama. If it wasn't for Special Olympics. I probably would have never gotten involved with journalism and self advocacy. If it wasn't for Special Olympics. They have taught me so much. And I've learned like I said earlier, I've learned more being an athlete leader than I ever did as an athlete. And so that's part of my mission is to continue spreading the message of inclusion and continue to educate Friends, family and others on how powerful and how important Special Olympics is. I mean, I have friends that always asked me like, you don't compete anymore. What do you do with Special Olympics and I had to explain to them. So I'd like to see Special Olympics more on, you know, national TV more often,
Unknown Speaker 27:22
who has been a mentor to you through all of this or it could be more than one. I'm just personally a really strong believer in having mentors to help shape you. So who's been one for you?
Unknown Speaker 27:34
So I'm with you. mentors, I think are the most important, you know, aspect to success, especially in a competitive field like journalism is. My mentor is Kevin Gandhi. It started when I met him out in Seattle, for the USA games. And that built our relationship up and now he's one of my biggest mentors and supporters in general. No them when I was up in Bristol, Connecticut, I shadowed him multiple times on sports center and a studio. So with the Special Olympics, but I also have professors that are mentors and, you know, internship supervisors who have mentors, but you know, it's important mentors are important without a mentor. It's going to be very hard to succeed in journalism or in any field.
Unknown Speaker 28:31
Alright, so I have some personal questions for you. Look more excited than that. What is less I want my first one is going to be around sports because you are really, really into sports. What was one of the biggest moments that broke your heart from sports? Hmm,
Unknown Speaker 28:50
that's it. That's a really good question. I was at the iron bowl a couple years ago, when Alabama lost and I was sitting They're in the lower bowl and had a watch Auburn fans who lost the field and get stuck in that crowd. It was awful. It was awful on that, yeah, I have so many heartbreaks, I'm the type of fan that I get really involved with sports. So one loss I mean just breaks my heart.
Unknown Speaker 29:26
Well, you know, I'm a big Cleveland everything fan. So I can't say that because you know, it's just full full full of heartache being a Cleveland Browns. Cavs Indians fan,
Unknown Speaker 29:40
few few bright spots, but it's I'll tell you one of the earliest heartbreaks I had was during the early 2000s. I was still really young and I didn't really fully understand the game of baseball completely yet. But when Vandy Johnson and Arizona diamond Back beat the Yankees and Derek Jeter in the World Series. My dad told me that was the first time I was truly heartbroken over a sporting event. I don't really remember it, right. But he said I was crying my eyes out. When the Yankees lost.
Unknown Speaker 30:18
Yeah. It's amazing how young kids can get so, so caught up in sports. I mean, it's just like, it's just Well, I mean, we, as an adult, you do too, but I have shed a tear to in my sports fandom, as well. So the
Unknown Speaker 30:33
thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is a real thing when it comes to sport. It's a real thing that is
Unknown Speaker 30:39
yes. And, and I wish I wish I had more thrills of victory. You'd be an Alabama fan. You guys get plenty of those. Yeah, we've gotten spoiled.
Unknown Speaker 30:47
Um, but you know, it. Sports is so powerful. And I mean, it's one of the things I love about sports and most is I could be an event bar or restaurant, and Alabama scores a touchdown. And the person sitting next to me, who I've never met before is my best friend for five minutes, right? I mean, so if sports get canceled if college football gets canceled this fall, I'm going to be very hot book and
Unknown Speaker 31:16
yeah, yeah, they're doing everything they can to prevent that. Yes. So what are some of your interests outside of sports?
Unknown Speaker 31:25
That's actually a really good question.
Unknown Speaker 31:29
Um, I like reading books. Okay. Um, I play video games.
Unknown Speaker 31:38
I mean, for the most part, my life is just all around sports. What video games do you play? I play Call of Duty. Okay, um, you know, I that's truly the answer. Like I just don't know sports is so much of my life that you know, when I'm not writing sports, when I'm not watching sports, I'm outside body My dirt bike, right? Um, so, and video games now are considered a sport.
Unknown Speaker 32:07
Unknown Speaker 32:09
I'd say reading and writing,
Unknown Speaker 32:14
okay, in a call of duty is is awesome. So there's nothing wrong there's a very good past time to blow off some steam. But look, I appreciate all of your time is there any last minute comments you want to make or plug about the Special Olympics,
Unknown Speaker 32:31
I'd say to everybody listening, you know, do some research and find your local Special Olympics program and get involved whether it be a coach, referee, volunteer, unified partner, whatever it may be. I encourage everyone to get involved because it makes you so happy and it's so fulfilling watching athletes succeed and go beyond just Sports. I mean, I have friends that you know, volunteered just because I was involved. And now the still being involved with Special Olympics years later on because they fell in love with it. So that's my message to everyone is do some research, educate yourself and get involved and become part of the movement of inclusion. Excellent.
Unknown Speaker 33:23
Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so make sure to follow RJ on social media, including Twitter under the handle at our nealon sports. That's at our nealon sports. Also, follow the landscape podcasts on all social media platforms, and share the episodes you love with others. Next episode will be the last in my sports in the Olympics miniseries, I'm excited to speak to Jeff Underwood, the President and CEO of the Lakeshore Foundation, which is the largest rehabilitation and adaptive facility in the world and also the training home to several Paralympians. Make sure to tune in to hear about this one of a kind facility that provides physical activity, sport, recreation, advocacy, policy and research for more than 4000 individuals annually. We'll see you then.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai