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Dana Mathewson, wheelchair pro, is more than an inspirational story
The top American wheelchair player captured gold in doubles and bronze in singles at last week's Parapan American Games in Peru, and comes to the US Open looking for more riches.
Published Sep 04, 2019
The US Open is more than just singles, doubles and juniors. The wheelchair and quad tournaments showcase some of the most dedicated players in the sport, with stories as incredible as their shotmaking.
Today, we're focusing on Dana Mathewson, a wild card into this year's US Open and an outspoken leader in her sport. To learn more about wheelchair tennis, head to Wheelchair Tennis Central, sponsored by Deloitte.
When she was 10, Dana Mathewson participated in many extracurricular activities, but soccer quickly became her favorite sport. Her boundless athleticism was a natural fit for the soccer pitch. One minute she'd be tracking a player down, the next minute she's put a shot on goal. She had found a sport that played to her strengths.
Then, during a normal game on what seemed like an ordinary day in Southern California, Mathewson's life would change forever.
Feeling the wind brush past her as she sprinted up and down the field, Mathewson began to feel excruciating back pain. It increased in intensity with every second that passed. Her legs felt like sandbags. It became too heavy to bear.
Within minutes, Mathewson would be paralyzed from the waist down.
Mathewson was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called Transverse Myelitis, which causes the immune system to attack the spinal cord. Mathewson would never play soccer again, but this horrific moment turned out to be just the beginning of her athletic journey.
Having just turned double digits, Mathewson saw her world crashing down around her. To her, the condition was a puzzle that could never be put back together. But Mathewson's mother was determined to keep her daughter active. She drove Dana to a wheelchair tennis camp in San Diego, despite cries and screams pleading to turn the car around and go back home.
The next two hours were dramatically different for Dana: she smiled, laughed and began what would be a life-long passion in tennis.
The athlete inside Mathewson remained, looking for a sport she could compete and thrive in. Wheelchair tennis, a physical and mental test, was everything she craved. Mathewson made a roaring return. Despite warnings from some that an athletic career would be difficult if not impossible to achieve, she proved to others and to herself that the only limits she faced were those she put upon herself.
In 2008, Mathewson reached No. 5 in the junior wheelchair world rankings; 10 years later, as a professional, she cracked the Top 10, and became the top-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the U.S.
"We are seen as inspirational people," Mathewson says, "instead of just athletes who happen to use wheelchairs—and who are actually quite good at what we do, regardless of being in a wheelchair or not."
Although Mathewson's story is undoubtedly inspiring and one that speaks to overcoming adversity, she doesn't want it to end with that narrative. Mathewson is an athlete, trains like any other athlete, and wants to be known for being excellent at what she does. She doesn't want her differences from able-bodied athletes to define her.
The world No. 15 also believes wheelchair tennis, for all its progress, still has a long way to go in terms of exposure, recognition and perception.
"In terms of the training that goes into it, it's the exact same as our able-body counterparts," she says. "We train just as much during the week, we have physios, dietitians, sports physiologists, we have all of that. All the same work goes into it, and that's what I would like people to recognize."
Mathewson, currently ranked 18th in the world and fifth in doubles, hopes to be at the forefront of change. She believes greater exposure to Paralympic sports—the 2020 Games take place next year, in Tokyo—will help her cause in the U.S. The additional TV coverage, sponsorships and commercials will only help promote the sport and introduce it to the many that are unaware it.
"I've seen fully packed stadiums at Wimbledon, Australian Open and Roland Garros," Mathewson says. "If anything it makes me feel inspired that it's possible to reach that height in America, but unfortunately for whatever reason we are behind."
Last week, at the Parapan American Games in Peru, Mathewson captured a gold medal in women's doubles with partner Emmy Kaiser on clay. She would then defeat doubles partner Kaiser to take home the bronze medal in singles.
Mathewson entered the event without expectations and didn't want to apply unnecessary pressure on herself. But addiiotnal training in Orlando helped, along with an emphasis on adding more topspin and touch shots to her arsenal.
"It was kind of surreal," she says. "Clay is not a surface that I consider to be my favorite, nor is it one that really suits my style of play."
Now in New York, Mathewson is preparing for the last major of the year and the third US Open of her career. Given a wild card into the tournament, the American is eager to capture her maiden Grand Slam title and believes it's within reach. Just two years ago, Mathewson made a run to the doubles final.
Physically and mentally, Mathewson is ready for the competition.
"I'm excited because I've had experience competing at a tournament of this size before, so I don't feel as nervous, which is a great thing," she says. "I can devote more of my energy and attention to just the tennis."
Mathewson's journey started off as a puzzle with all its pieces jumbled and disarrayed. But that 10-year-old girl was destined to be much more than an inspirational story. One by one, Mathewson put the pieces together to reveal a masterpiece. Her story, and her fight, goes on.
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