A Native American Wrestler Embraces His Heritage
How RJ Lowdog’s Fight Has Inspired Greatness
By Bill X. Barron – RMN Events Writer
“Anything you can do, I can do.” This “can do” spirit has awakened the athlete within RJ Lowdog, providing him with the incentive and courage to not only become a successful wrestler in the way of his Native American heritage, but also to participate in boxing, football, cross-country running, and track, not to mention that RJ is an avid hunter in the mountains of his native Montana.
All these athletic interests are within the reach of anyone, but for RJ – born missing both legs below his knees – his unabated pursuit of new and greater challenges highlights the heart of a champion. While still in the womb, RJ fell victim to amniotic band syndrome; like a rubber band cutting off circulation, his mother’s amniotic sac pinched off the lower half of his legs while also causing a malformation to his hip. With the help of Shriners, he has received 27 surgeries, with more to come, as every few years his leg bones need to be grinded down to adapt to his prosthetics.
In Native American lore, RJ’s legs are still in the Spirit World; there to be accessed by getting in touch with his spirit fighter. In fact, RJ is a direct descendant of Chief Lowdog, who was RJ’s age (14) when he became a chief of the Ogalala Lakota Sioux. Chief Lowdog fought alongside Sitting Bull in the Battle of Little Bighorn. When the Chief learned that the white man intended to order where the Indians could live, in the August 18, 1881 Kansas Weekly Times publication, Lowdog proclaimed: “My judgment was why should I allow any man to support me against my will anywhere, so long as I have hands and as long as I am an able man, not a boy.”
When his father Brandon Neal came into his life at age three, Brandon looked to his own background as a high school and University of Oregon wrestler to help “draw RJ out of his shell, helping him realize that he could do anything anyone else can co.” In his first practice, when only four years old, “RJ just sat there and cried, but by the third practice he was rolling around and having fun.”
Brandon believes “God put me on this world to come into RJ’s life to make him into a championship wrestler.” But wrestling did not come easily for RJ; in fact, he was winless his first three years. By the time he got to middle school, RJ lost only one match in 7th and 8th grade. Now nine years after he first entered a wrestling room, after placing in national tournaments in folkstyle and freestyle, as well as winning a Greco national title (a style that emphasizes upper body technique and strength), RJ is a high school freshman seeking to become a Montana state champion at 113 pounds.
Vince Salminen, club coach as well as admirer, shares: “RJ Lowdog is the epitome of making the best of the cards you were dealt. He has faced and overcome diversity his whole life. People have doubted him or felt sorry for him, but none of that has stopped RJ from doing what he needs to do in order to meet or exceed his goals. This kid has earned all of his success; he will continue to earn it because he is a warrior. I look forward to what his future holds. No matter what happens in this sport, I know he will be successful in whatever he chooses to do, because RJ is a respectful and kind young man with the heart of a champion.”
RJ says: “I have adapted to my situation because I like sports. Opponents like wrestling me because they think it is going to be easy. Then they find out that I work harder than they do. I enjoy the element of surprise!” One day RJ dreams of being a Rocky Mountain Nationals champion. He is also in pursuit of competing in the NCAA’s. Afterward, with his prowess as a boxer, he could well compete as a mixed martial arts fighter.
His father knows that “RJ has to work ten times harder to accomplish what he does,” but considers “his situation to be a blessing. He might not be the same person he is now if he had two legs.” Thus Brandon has taken him all over the country so as to figure out how to beat different styles and new opponents. Their favorite series is RMN Events because he gets to see wrestlers from several states and compete for huge trophies while staying within driving distance of his native Montana.
Another club coach, Shane Salminen, relates: “As his coach, I have always believed that RJ would be able to make a disadvantage/disability become an advantage in the sport of wrestling. As a coach of RJ, we emphasized moves with scores from a lower level. Referees needed to be coached that when RJ is on his knees and facing an opponent, that this is an escape. In defending his unusual technique, I have been given a few red cards and have had to sit in the stands for half an hour.” Moves like the snap down and fireman’s carry from the neutral position, the Petersen roll and sit-out from bottom, and the tilt and bar arm series on top are most suited for RJ to take advantage of his upper body strength.
His Billings (MT) West high school coach, Jeremy Hernandez, asserts: “It’s obvious that RJ has a disability, but he has not let that stop him from training and getting better every day. RJ has learned to wrestle with this disability and flourished as a competitor. I am really excited to see what he is going to accomplish in the next four years as a West High Bear. RJ is a leader in and out of the room. He does not want any special treatment from anyone because of his disability; in fact, it kind of irritates him when people do that. He will do great things during his time at West High and beyond. People will remember RJ for being the kid who never had an excuse.”
While wrestling is a passion for RJ, it has also “helped him come out of himself.” A Shriner’s Spokesperson of the Year in 2013, RJ addressed an audience of 2500 people. He has also been a featured guest of Montana’s East-West All-Star football game and was invited to speak to Native American youth at a unity symposium in Denver. An owner of his own lawn mower business at age fourteen, RJ has demonstrated maturity beyond his years. RJ belongs to the Assinaboine and Sioux tribes, where he is a Pipe Carrier; he ran thirteen miles on his prosthetic legs as part of a tribal sobriety run. An active member of the Dakota Sweat Lodge, RJ connected with his ancestors by sitting on a hill for four days without food or water. According to native lore, RJ was dying while still alive in order to be reborn as a full-fledged spiritual being.
At the same time, “RJ is a walking spokesperson for wrestling.” Brandon continues: “He is visual – people recognize and identify with him. Lots of kids have joined our club because he is such an inspiration. They know that if he can do it, they can as well. In reality, I don’t see him as being handicapped. Instead, I see a person who is always striving, never giving up. With God, everything is possible.” Character is the element within a person which informs how he or she will face adversity. In the spirit, sacrifice, and success of RJ Lowdog, here is a true champion who embodies character.