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Stories of Hope: Hitting it Big in Las Vegas By Keith Groller

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Noga Nir-Kistler’s trip to Las Vegas last month didn’t include lots of glitz and glamor, nor did it include a spin of the roulette wheel, a roll of the dice or a pull of the slots.

Nir-Kistler was all business in Sin City and proved to be one of the surest bets in the gambling mecca of the world.

The wheelchair-bound 27-year-old, who has never let a debilitating disease detour her from her goals, had one of the best moments of her life at the U.S. Open Table Tennis Paralympics.

Nir-Kistler won a gold cup and both gold and silver medals by excelling in singles and team competitions.

And the good news followed her home to Salisbury Township where she learned from the International Paralympic Table Tennis Federation that she was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. among Class 5 (least handicapped) wheelchair table tennis players; No. 12 in the world among Class 5 wheelchair players and No. 68 in the world among all wheelchair players.

These credentials have earned Nir-Kistler a berth in the Pan-Am Paralympic Games this summer in Brazil and opened the door to the possibility of her competing at the Paralympics Summer Games in Bejing, China, in 2008, one week after the regular Olympics are held.

All of this good news is in stark contrast to where Nir-Kistler was emotionally and physically a year ago.

She has been battling RSD (reflex sympathetic dystrophy), a rare, debilitating disease affecting the nervous system, since the age of 19.

She has been confined to a wheelchair for the past three years and has undergone at least 30 surgeries over the past five years.

Her condition, for which there is no cure, worsened in 2004 and 2005.

”She couldn’t work, she couldn’t drive her car,” said her husband, Fred Kistler, a legend himself among local table tennis players. ”She stopped playing. Things were really going downhill. This disease is life-threatening and it looked like she may have her legs amputated.”

What turned Nir-Kistler around was a boot – a lympho press – that pumps air into her leg and reduces swelling.

”It’s incredible how that has improved her condition, and just perked her up,” Fred Kistler said. ”She puts it on each leg three times each per day. The change has been like night and day. She has so much more energy and she’s back to playing and playing very well. Before, she was just going through the motions.

”Of course, with her there’s never any complaining, no matter how bad she hurts or how many procedures she must go through. She could be ready to die and she’d tell everybody she’s fine.”

Nir-Kistler, a Whitehall High graduate and a former swimmer and volleyball player, embraced table tennis as a way to stay competitive and active, even as RSD attempted to limit her life.

She won a title at the 2003 U.S. Open National Championships at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and won the women’s open wheelchair title at the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas the same year.

She was set to become a member of U.S. Paralympic team that was to participate in the 2004 Games in Greece, but her health worsened and surgery kept her from playing.

That’s why her performance in Vegas meant more to here than a big hit at the blackjack tables.

”It was incredible,” she said. ”I just went there with the expectation of just trying to do my best. I lost my first match when I got out there. In fact, I got blown away. So, I really had to shape up and I ended up winning a lot of matches. I ended up beating the same girl who beat me twice. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of titles, but this one ranks right up there. And then to go from being ranked No. 31 in the world in my class to No. 12 was icing on the cake.”

Nir-Kistler, who was born in Israel, said she missed playing a sport she come to love.

”I just couldn’t do it for about two years,” she said. ”I couldn’t even sit in the wheelchair. Thankfully, this [lympho press boot] has changed everything. I feel much better. I was very anxious to get back to table tennis.”

For Nir-Kistler, a beloved figure within the Allentown/Lehigh Valley Table Tennis Club, which plays several times a week at the YWCA/YMCA in Allentown, table tennis is a great diversion to her health issues.

The game is intense and fast-moving. It’s not the kind of table tennis played in the family den or rec room.

It takes amazing hand-eye coordination, reflexes, control and strategy.

”Unless people play the game, they don’t understand the different things that are going on,” she said. ”It’s hard to explain it in words, but it’s not as easy as it looks.”

For Nir-Kistler, the sport has been a lifeline.

”It’s fun. ? it’s great to see friends and travel and go to all of these tournaments,” she said ”When I was sick, I missed the competition and the people.”

Through all of her setbacks, it would have been easy for Nir-Kistler to yield to RSD.

But the same fighting spirit that has made her one of the best table tennis players in the world also keeps her moving forward; dogged and determined to beat a foe that she can’t see or control.

”You can’t give up,” she said. ”There’s always hope. I’ve had over 30 surgeries and life has been crazy. But I am lucky to have Fred, and lots of friends who care about me.”

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