Seven years ago, Nishan Patel didn’t even know what wheelchair racing was. He had grown up playing recreational sports with his friends and became a successful wrestler at Middletown High School North, never making excuses for, or even learning the name of, the rare limb disease he was born with.
But in his junior year, a high school coach recognized Patel’s competitive drive and put him in touch with the North Jersey Navigators, an adaptive sports program dedicated to coaching athletes with disabilities. The Navigators coach suggested that Patel try wheelchair racing, and the rest was history.
“Once I got on that chair everything just exploded,” Patel said. “I loved it.”
In the four years since, Patel has competed in a wide range of speed and distance races both locally and across the globe. And despite his disability, which forces him to race with one arm against competitors using two, the once-undefeated high school wrestler continues to succeed.
After competing in the IWAS World Junior Games in Puerto Rico in 2013, Patel traveled to England this summer to take another shot at some of the best competitors in the world. On the final day of the games, he and three teammates took gold in the men’s 4 x 100 relay.
“I never imagined that something like that was possible when I first started,” he said. “But I wanted to make something happen for myself, and I did.”
Now 22, Patel said he is looking to continue his success at an even higher level of competition, including the Paralympic Games. He trains, lift weights and even volunteers as a wrestling coach at his former high school, all while pursuing a computer science degree at Brookdale.
Professionally, his goal is to become a computer programmer and an IT professional. Personally, he just wants to keep growing.
“It’s not about winning a gold medal. It’s about trying to beat what you have already done. It’s about seeing how much better you can do,” he said.
Patel said he also hopes his story can serve as an inspiration to others. He currently runs a YouTube channel, where he posts videos of his races and his evolution as a competitor. His goal, he said, is to show other adaptive people that they are not alone, and that there are a world of opportunities available to them.
“I don’t really expect it to go global or something,” he said. “I just want people to know that there are disabled people around them, because when I was growing up there were no disabled people. It can be isolating.”
Adaptive sports, which also include games such as archery, table tennis, swimming and basketball, are a great way to connect with others, he said. They can also inspire people to work harder and achieve more than they ever thought possible.
“Without sports I don’t know where I would be right now,” Patel said. “My high school coach told me that hard work plus dedication equals success. And that’s the motto that I’m sticking with.”