Spina bifida doesn't keep Utah athlete down

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COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS -- Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. Sandy resident Ryan Nelson has it, but it hasn't slowed him down.

The sophomore from Brighton High School is one of the top wheelchair athletes in Utah, and a highly-ranked tennis player as well.

Nelson takes notes in his first period Spanish class at Brighton High School. Like many 16-year-olds, Nelson's sophomore year has had its challenges.

"Everybody's different, and different is good. That's my motto," he says.

And like everybody else, Ryan is different. Unlike his classmates, he relies on a wheelchair to get through the halls.

"I have a disability called spina bifida, where a section of my spine wasn't made right and made it so my feet are disabled and I can't move them at all," he explains.

Not having the use of his feet is no problem, though. Nelson uses his hands and arms to do what he loves most -- playing tennis.

"I'm happy that even though I'm limited with stuff, I can do, and I'm able to do, a lot more than I thought I would be able to," he says.

That wasn't the case as a child when some people couldn't look past his disability.

Nelson says, "In elementary whenever we'd have P.E. the teacher would automatically say, ‘He can't do that,' so I had to sit on the side and they wouldn't even let me try."

So Ryan decided to try himself, starting with wheelchair basketball.

"I think age 4 is when I started playing wheelchair basketball. I noticed there are people in wheelchairs and that I'm not going to be like everybody else," he says.

His mother, Libbi Nelson, says, "I've always called him my happy kid, and that's what he is; he's happy every day. He's had a few times where he says, ‘Why am I like this?' but he's over it 10 minutes later and he's ready to go."

This past year Nelson's been going to tennis tournaments. Most recently he traveled to Turkey for the international wheelchair world championships.

"I'm third in the nation in wheelchair tennis junior division and 18th in the world," he says.

He played on the J.V. tennis team for Brighton this year, winning one doubles match. He also plays for Utah's Wheelin' Jazz basketball team.

Nelson will continue to compete overseas and for the next two years play for the Brighton Bengals. Then he hopes to play for the University of Arizona, where they have both wheelchair tennis and basketball teams.

As far as his spina bifida?

"I think they're working on a cure for it, but even if they found one I wouldn't want it; it's who I am," he says.

Like he says, different is good.

E-mail: kaiken@ksl.com


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Kathy Aiken


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