As X Games Minneapolis 2019 kicks off today, ESPN expands on its relationship with the Special Olympics by hosting the first-ever Unified BMX Race at X Games. The event – similar to the popular Unified Snowboarding event held at X Games Aspen for the last five years – promotes inclusion by partnering Special Olympics and professional action sports athletes to compete on the same track.
For ESPN intern RJ Nealon, who is working with the social media team at X Games, this Unified event has a much deeper meaning.
Nealon, a 25-year-old Maryland native and senior at the University of Alabama, was a Special Olympics athlete for 15 years. Born with cerebral palsy, he showcased his abilities in just about every sport the Special Olympics could offer – though most notably in swimming and basketball.
In 2010, he went to the Special Olympics National Games in Nebraska for swimming, where he received three medals (two gold, one silver). In 2016, he also became a Unified Basketball State Champion for Special Olympics Maryland.
“The Special Olympics is about learning to step outside your comfort zone, how to adapt to new opportunities and be the best person you can be,” Nealon said. “Without Special Olympics, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
He continues to advocate for the Special Olympics as a writer and public speaker.
“My goal is to be a reporter/analyst for Special Olympics events,” Nealon said. “For all Special Olympics has done for me, I feel as though that’s my way of giving back. I want to share stories of athletes that may not get a chance to tell them themselves.”
SportsCenter anchor Kevin Negandhi, one of ESPN’s biggest Special Olympics advocates, has become a mentor and role model for Nealon.
Last summer, while interning with the Special Olympics, Nealon conducted his first ever on-camera interview with Negandhi at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
Nealon said: “Kevin said something that sticks with me today. He said, ‘All I wanted was a chance.’ That stuck with me and I’m so thankful that ESPN is giving me that chance now.”