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Dana Mathewson: Wheelchair tennis star plots Paralympic breakthrough

Sports by nature to many, can be seen as simply a game, mere entertainment at that. To some, it’s a wonderful activity to maintain or improve physical health. To others, it’s the adrenaline rush they gain from competition, the thrill of victory or the potential financial reward that awaits them. Yet, for countless people and athletes with disabilities, having sports present in their lives has proven to be life-altering, game-changing if you will, to the point beyond explanation. Dr Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games, once said, “Paraplegia is not the end of the way. It is the beginning of a new life.”

Dana Mathewson, the highest ranked male or female American wheelchair tennis player in the world, embodies that statement to the utmost, as she gears up to represent Team USA in singles and doubles at the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan this month for the second time in her career. A pro on the ITF/Uniqlo Wheelchair Tennis Tour for over a decade, the American has stood firm as the top-standing woman from the US for the majority of that period. Her status has only heightened, as she currently ranks a career-high No 8 in singles and No 7 in doubles, and has thrived in one of the fastest growing wheelchair sports across the world that is predominantly dominated by international players, where she is currently the only American woman ranked in the top 25 singles rankings.

With a game built around aggressive groundstrokes and the desire to consistently pin her opponents back deeper behind the baseline, the right-handed Mathewson will march into the Paralympics as perhaps America’s biggest hope for gold in the wheelchair singles event. The build-up surrounding Mathewson is that she’s not just one of the leading contenders in Tokyo but there’s potential history on the line, where she’s aiming to become the first American woman to win a gold medal in the women’s singles wheelchair competition and only the second to ever medal since Terry Lewis won bronze at the 1988 Games. Since wheelchair tennis was added to the Paralympic Games in 1988, the gold medal on the women’s side has been dominated by the Netherlands.

Mathewson’s leap into athletics began as a youth in San Diego, where she developed an enthusiasm for soccer. Then at the age of 10, she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease that affects the spinal cord and causes the immune system to attack the lower area of the back. With her mother being insistent in keeping her daughter active, she tried her hand in basketball and rugby at 13, before discovering that tennis gave her that competitive fulfillment she craved.

Climbing as high as No 5 on the junior wheelchair circuit, since turning pro in 2008, she has steadily elevated herself into one of the more consistent performers on the women’s tour, in both singles and doubles action. Throughout her career, Mathewson has collected 11 singles titles and 23 doubles titles, was a 2016 Paralympian, has been a doubles grand Slam finalist and two-time semi-finalist, reached the semi-finals of the 2019 US Open (her deepest run at a singles major event) and, in maybe her finest feat to date, captured a gold medal (doubles) and a bronze medal (singles) at the 2019 Parapan American Games for Team USA.

“I love that tennis allows me to push myself and see what I’m capable of doing,” Mathewson said. “Because it’s a singular sport, when you have a big win, you know that’s because of the hours you put in on your own, and that feeling of accomplishment is unlike anything I have ever felt.”

One key aspect the 30-year-old has credited improvement in is on the cerebral side. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a mental skills coach, so my mind is a lot stronger now than it was before,” she said. “Mental skills help you in those big match moments, where you need to be calm and collected.”

While Mathewson’s evolution as a player has certainly been inspiring, she along with other wheelchair athletes are still seeking to debunk the overwhelming narrative that disabled athletes are not on equal footing with able-bodied athletes.

“When you take the chairs away, what someone is seeing when they watch wheelchair tennis is just that … tennis,” Mathewson said. “We hit forehands, backhands, serves and volleys just the same as able-bodied players. We even play on the same courts and surfaces, and at grand slams. I think what people don’t realize is that wheelchair tennis is elite. We have the same training regimens as players you know well, like Roger Federer and Serena [Williams]. We have fitness programs, nutritionists, trainers, on-court and off-court training sessions, and rehab just like anyone else. All it takes for someone to appreciate the level of play is to come see it in person.”

Considering the strides the tour has made, Mathewson recognizes that in regards to wheelchair tennis players gaining more recognition, having larger fan bases, being marketed better and earning higher prize money, there’s still work to be done to close the gap. “The most I’ve made at a tournament is about $20,000,” Mathewson said. “For a wheelchair player, this is a lot of money but it pales in comparison to what a first-round loser receives at the same tournament on the able-bodied side. The difference in prize money is shocking.”

At this year’s Australian Open singles competition, able-bodied players that loss in the second round earned $150,000, in contrast to the winner at the wheelchair event that took home just $140,000. Currently sponsored by Adidas, Wilson, The Hartford and Deloitte, Mathewson says most wheelchair tennis players survive off endorsements and prize money earnings but it’s difficult to obtain, yet she believes with the sport becoming more mainstream this will change.

Despite dealing with those hurdles, Mathewson, who is a mix of both Chinese and Scottish/Polish heritage, realized she had to tweak some things in order to achieve her athletic goals. After training independently for sometime while studying audiology at the University of Arizona, then completing her master’s degree at University College London in England in 2020, she made the decision to commit full-time to training by moving to the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, last year right before Covid-19 struck and cancelled numerous of tournaments. There she trains with head coach Jason Hartnett.

This summer has been quite eventful for Mathewson. Coming off a quarterfinal appearance at her first ever French Open in June, a singles runner-up finish in Loughborough, Great Britain, where she defeated world No 4 Jordanne Whiley for the first time, and seizing the Toyota Open singles and doubles title in Île de Ré, France, she enters the Paralympics in the best form of her career.

“During my time training this past year, I’ve learned a lot of new shots, such as drop shots or more net play which involves more touch and feel than I’ve ever had before,” Mathewson said. “I have improved my serve, my mobility, strength, and court awareness. I feel like I move better and see the court differently than I did before. I think I’m a much more well-rounded player now.”

In terms of national exposure, this summer’s Paralympic Games will be a major breakthrough globally for disabled athletes, as NBC Universal is planning to air 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage, including the first primetime broadcast programming in the history of the event, which Mathewson is proud of and feels it’s long overdue. “This is humongous for Paralympic sport and adaptive sport in general,” Mathewson said. “We have been fighting for this recognition in the United States for years, and I’m so happy that things are finally starting to change and the tides are beginning to turn. Showcasing us on primetime is something that we as athletes have fought for, and I honestly think it’s what we deserve.”

Aside from medaling in Tokyo, Mathewson’s main goal moving forward is to crack the top seven in the world rankings so she can gain direct entry into Grand Slam events that only allow eight-player draws. She and other players on tour are currently pushing for larger draw sizes at slams. Still, the world’s top-ranked American wheelchair tennis player’s focus remains on the Paralympics, where she’s fully aware of what winning a gold medal would mean.

“It’s something that any athlete dreams of, and I just hope that I can bring my A-game and make that happen not just for myself, but for American women, and for the disabled athletes that come after me.”