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All In for Christ

Published on April 15, 2020

Sarah Rennicke

The love of sport is a universal language, and the global spread of the phenomenon known as All Ability sport is just one more example. Thanks to its growing popularity, ministries like FCA are taking strides to reach individuals in what is a relatively new arena of ministry for them. One athlete influencing All Ability ministry at FCA is professional wheelchair basketball player Ryan Neiswender.

IMG-4010 webNeiswender, a member of Team USA’s Paralympic men’s basketball team, was born into an athletic family from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. As a toddler he was diagnosed with arthrogryposis, a disability from birth in which his lower spine doesn’t send motor signals to his quadriceps. Further testing revealed the genetic cause: congenital distal spinal muscular atrophy (CDSMA). Despite the diagnosis, he curated a love for basketball and played with friends, and though able to walk with leg braces, the game eventually got too fast. When his parents came across a newspaper article about wheelchair basketball, he began to feel hope and freedom.

Every Saturday and Sunday, he and his parents made a two-and-a- half hour drive back and forth to Philadelphia for practice with his AAU club team. At age 12, Neiswender told the local news his dream was to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois, which was a leader in All Ability access for students and athletes on campus.

"When I hopped in the wheelchair for the first time to play basketball, moving around was very freeing. I recognized my limitations were gone, and I had a freedom to pursue a craft and passions."   

-Ryan Neiswender
In high school, Neiswender set his sights even higher: the U.S. national team. When an opportunity arose to try out with the team the same weekend as his high school graduation, he chose to forgo graduation. His choice paid off; he made the national team in 2013 as an 18-year-old. When the University of Illinois recruited him that same year, he found that he’d achieved both of his early dreams.



As his collegiate journey began, his talent flourished, but Neiswender flatlined in his faith.

“As I got more and more success, I found my worth and identity in what I could accomplish, and I didn’t see a need for a Savior,” he admitted.

"What some would view as a disability, Ryan’s seen God use it for His glory. 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.” - Justin Neally, Lowcountry FCA Metro Area Director, South Carolina

Then came the highs and lows of emotion as he began trying out for the national team. Without an anchor, Neiswender got caught up in how well he performed.

Toward the end of his freshman year, a friend invited him to an FCA Huddle meeting where he met Justin Neally, the Illini Land Co-Campus Director at the time. (Neally currently serves as Lowcountry Metro Area Director in S.C.) Neiswender was intrigued by the camaraderie student-athletes had with each other and Neally’s genuine intentionality toward life.

“FCA was the first place I saw how sport and faith can go together. I met people who want to grow in Christ, but also go and watch LeBron and eat at Buffalo Wild Wings,” he said.

As Neiswender began his sophomore year, his faith took root. He attended leadership meetings, and, by the end of the year, Neiswender was sharing his testimony. He shared about how, while raised in a Christian household, God came alive to him through school and sport. He was baptized by Neally his junior year, found accountability, and dug into prayer and the Word.

In such a critical time as college, FCA offered a space for Neiswender to grow with like-minded athletes and pave the way for personal growth and life change. He met his future wife, Lauren (who played soccer for the Illini), through FCA.


Faith forged, Neiswender took on life after graduation in 2017. His plan was to pursue a Ph.D. and play a fifth year of basketball, but a tug in his spirit sent him on staff with FCA that September until an opportunity to play professionally in Germany took him overseas for a year. Upon returning to the States, he and Lauren married. Neally was the best man in their wedding. Now the couple serves on staff at Stone Creek Church in Urbana just minutes from the University of Illinois campus while Ryan trains for more big dreams with the U.S. men’s Paralympic team.

ryan (2)
Ryan speaking to the University of Illinois FCA Huddle

Hopeful to play in the 2020 Tokyo Games, Neiswender looks to the future while planting himself in the present. While he made the roster last year and helped the team win gold in Lima, Peru, and qualify for the Paralympics, each year he must go through the tryout process where roster slots aren’t guaranteed. It’s a precarious limbo: having the mindset as if he is already on the team while walking in the uncertainty of being selected. But Neiswender chooses to focus on Colossians 2:6-7, which highlights being rooted and built up in Christ.

“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.”

It’s a life filled with thanksgiving indeed.

“FCA brought Lauren and me to know Jesus,” he 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.”

Neiswender hopes his story is just the beginning when it comes to gaining traction between FCA and the All Ability world.

“The mission is EVERY coach, EVERY athlete,” Neally said. “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.”


All Ability sport is defined as the inclusion of all people with disabilities  and emphasizes the biblical message of “in God we are all able.” All Ability sport encourages everyone with disabilities to participate at elite and competitive levels as well as recreational and community-based sports. All Ability competitors include coaches and athletes who play with physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
In 2019, FCA hosted its first All Ability Sport Forum to gather staff and ministry partners to learn more about the diverse opportunities to these sports.
“Our ministry is to all coaches and athletes, so moving forward, we must be intentional in our prayers, training and programming in determining how God would have us be inclusive. I can’t wait to see how He leads us in this effort and how different FCA may look in a few years.”
—Debbie Jobe, FCA Executive Vice President of Training



   All Ability in Colorado

CO springs all ability meeting
FCA Boulder/Broomfield Area Director Tab Howell (pictured right) convened the Colorado Springs All Ability Meeting with coaches, athletes and staff representing FCA, the City of Colorado, Unified Sports and Special Olympics.

Tab Howell, FCA Boulder/Broomfield Area Director felt a special 
calling to serve coaches and athletes of the Special Olympics, one sector of All Ability sports. With more than five million athlete staking part in various Special Olympics events across more than 170 countries, the need is substantial. “I tell staff wondering how to start an All Ability ministry to work where you are already established,” Howell said. “Pick a school with a Multi-Sport Huddle and teach your student leaders that part of their mission field on campus includes inviting and befriending those with disabilities to their Huddle.” Ministry opportunities include Camps and Huddles, but with an added intentionality. 



Photos courtesy of Ryan Neiswender, Justin Neally, and National Wheelchair Basketball Association / Butch Ireland