Neiswender taking it all in stride

CORNWALL — Ryan Neiswender is as bright, perceptive and articulate as any 15-year-old could be.

But for someone so intellectually aware, the soon-to-be Cedar Crest High School freshman appears to be profoundly oblivious to the fact that he’s been dealt a bad hand in life.

That’s probably because when Neiswender looks at the cards on the table of his life he sees a full house where others might see only a deck stacked against them.

Despite the daily challenges of a rare muscular disorder — arthrogryposis — that has been his constant companion since birth, Neiswender, son of Cedar Crest boys’ soccer coach Daryl Neiswender and his wife, Peg, has become an accomplished athlete in the physically demanding sports of basketball and tennis.

Though he can walk with the aid of leg braces, the effects of arthrogryposis, which prevents the lower leg muscles from fully developing, are such that Neiswender must use a wheelchair to compete in his chosen sports. To say he does so with great gusto and without a hint of remorse would be a tremendous understatement.

“I don’t know what I’d do without sports,” Neiswender said with a smile prior to a tennis practice session at Cornwall Elementary School earlier this week. “Without sports I think I’d be boring. Life would be boring. I think sports just adds another chapter to my life. It helps me stay active and not just sit around.”

Neiswender’s latest athletic accomplishment came last month when he captured the Men’s Singles “B” Division at the 10th annual Hempfield Wheelchair Tennis Tournament in Landisville.

Despite being the youngster in the men’s tournament field, Neiswender dropped a total of just four games en route to the title, toppling the No. 1 and 2 seeds along the way.

“It was nice to win,” he said. “It’s always nice to win. I love to win, and I love to compete against other people. You get caught up in that. You’re motivated by how good other people are and how good you want to be.”

Basketball is Neiswender’s first love, but he added tennis to the list a few years back and has continually grown and improved his game with the help of instructor Gila Hodge, who also serves as the girls’ tennis coach at Cedar Crest.

Neither Neiswender nor Hodge knew much about the intricacies of wheelchair tennis when they first began their player-coach relationship, but by watching the two go through their practice session it was immediately clear they’ve adapted quite well. Hodge feeds her pupil the ball, and Neiswender goes and gets it and smacks it back, just as well as any completely able-bodied player would.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” said Neiswender. “She volunteered to learn with me and see where it went. And it just took off.

“I like basketball because it’s a team sport, but at the same time I also like the spotlight on me with tennis. There’s nobody else, it’s just you. And anything that can get me out and being competitive I like to do.”

Unlike most local athletes, though, Neiswender does not have the benefit of a home-crowd advantage or local cheering section.

Competing in both basketball and tennis requires significant travel, often to nearby states or across the country several times a year. In addition, Neiswender heads to Baltimore each Saturday from September to March for practice with his basketball team. It is costly and a time-consuming undertaking, to say the least.

But also well worth it, from Neiswender’s perspective.

“I think about what would life be like if I was able-bodied,” said Neiswender. “I often think if there would be a cure for my disease, would I want it? There’s so many opportunities. I’ve gone so many places my friends have never been to. There’s pretty amazing stories.”

Including the one he’s still in the midst of writing.

Copyright 2009 Lebanon Daily News