Living With Cerebral Palsy Doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Part Two

Long banner with a rounded square photo of RJ on the left side. Text reads "Keeping it Real: RJ's Story, Part 2". A purple line underneath and the green cparf logo in the bottom right corner.
Thu 09 May 2024

By RJ Nealon

I often think back to that quick submission loss and tell myself that it was probably the best thing that happened to me and my journey. It forced me to take a deep hard look at myself and converse with my inner self. What do I want? What impact do I want to make? And how am I going to do it? Training in combat sports remains the only thing in my life that resembles hard work, dedication, and commitment. So many life essentials require accommodations or some sort of assistance because of my cerebral palsy, but my jiu-jitsu does not. 

I have good days and bad days in the gym. Sometimes I get smashed. And other days I do the smashing. I’ve become confident in my leg entanglements and inversions to upside down positions. I have developed a game I play, and I have become at peace with my right-hand weakness to the point where, when I’m training, it becomes nonexistent. 

RJ stands with teammate behind a blue padded wall wearing a blue jiu jitsu belt.

Just in the last year, I have podiumed in several International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Opens, having most recently won a bronze and gold medal at the Dublin International Open and earning a silver medal at the Miami International Open. I have also had success with Ironman Grappling Championships, the largest submission-only promotion in New England. 

Back in July of 2023, I won the first adaptive match in promotion history in a 10-minute unanimous decision win. I have set the goal of competing at the Abu Dhabi World Para Jiu-Jitsu Championships in November. As an adaptive athlete, this is a big platform to showcase my skills and compete for a world championship. The opponent I beat in my adaptive super fight was the 2022 silver medalist and the 2023 bronze medalist at the Abu Dhabi tournament. 

In September of 2023, I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Maceió, Brazil with my professor and four teammates at his annual seminar. There, I had the privilege to teach a technique and showcase my modifications and ideas to allow the technique to have success, even with my limitations. Not only did I get an overwhelmingly positive response, but many athletes said my modifications made the technique easier.

I think that what people don’t realize is, just because someone may have a disability, it does not mean they can’t do certain things. It will be challenging and overwhelming at times, but becoming true to yourself and being at peace with whatever hand you are dealt is a big piece to the puzzle. I don’t like the notion that jiu-jitsu is for everyone because it’s not. It’s a hard thing to do and you must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. However, I do believe it can be the light to so many and for that, I encourage everyone to try it, especially my fellow cerebral palsy peers. 

Because without it, I don’t know where I’d be in my life. I’m forever chasing that black belt dream and I know when I achieve that, my game will be unlike anyone else’s. 

And that’s what’s most special. 

Fri 03 May 2024

Discover how RJ used Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to find and harness his personal strengths, and how it became an important part of his relationship with his cerebral palsy.

Fri 26 Apr 2024

The second part of this Science Spotlight focuses on the specifics and potential treatment of dystonia for people with cerebral palsy.