Serving For Gold
Local Paralympian Dana Mathewson prepares to take to the courts in Rio
Posted: Sept. 8, 2016
Dana Mathewson’s friendly smile, charisma, and genuine modesty make it easy to almost forget that she’s a world-class athlete. That is, until she’s on the tennis court: she’s the number one-ranked female wheelchair tennis player in the country who also currently sits at world number 16 on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit. During a training session at Park Hyatt Aviara with Steve Halverson, her coach of ten years, Mathewson deftly maneuvers her made-to-measure, five-wheeled Quickie chair with her left arm while drilling groundstrokes, cutting volleys, and honing drop shots with her Babolat Pure Drive in her right.
Equally amiable and beaming with pride for his star student, Halverson invites me to grab my racquet and return a few balls. I enthusiastically oblige, fully knowing what’s in store. Mathewson’s ball crosses the net with as much pace and spin as you would expect from an elite competitor, and Halverson has a little chuckle as I flub a return.
Halverson has worked with countless athletes over the past 40 years. However, Mathewson holds the distinction of being the only Olympian he’s coached. She’s headed to Rio as one of four women representing the U.S. on the Paralympic wheelchair tennis team, which also includes five men — two singles players and three quad singles players — who will compete for medals in six events: Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles, Women’s Singles, Women’s Doubles, Quad Singles, and Quad Doubles (quad competition is for athletes with an impairment to both upper and lower limbs, versus only lower impairments, as in Mathewson’s case).
“They’re world-class athletes. They train just as hard as the Olympic athletes.
Not to be confused with Special Olympics, the 2016 Paralympic Games — so named because they parallel the Olympics, Mathewson informs me — will host competition for over 4,000 athletes from 176 member nations beginning September 7. The events will take place in the same venues as the Olympics, with all athletes held to the same requirements and standards. “There needs to be a distinction between what we do and the Special Olympics,” she says. “I think in the U.S. everyone is more focused on the inspirational stories — that’s what the Special Olympics are about — and what we do gets lumped in. That’s the thing that myself and a lot of people like me would like to differentiate between.” Halverson adds, “They’re world-class athletes. They train just as hard as the Olympic athletes. They’re Olympians.”
Being a Paralympian wasn’t always a dream Mathewson dared to have. In fact, she didn’t even start playing until about age 13, roughly three years after transverse myelitis robbed her of much of the functionality of her legs. The former soccer fanatic discovered her love for tennis when her mother enrolled her in a wheelchair tennis camp. The wins kept coming as she gained momentum and confidence, and she eventually joined the ITF tour. While taking several years off to focus on her studies at the University of Arizona, watching the London games as a spectator rather than as a competitor ignited her desire to pick up her racquet again and set her sights on Rio.
After the Paralympics wrap on September 18, Mathewson plans to return to the tour for about a year before resuming her pursuit of a doctorate in audiology. “Since I was affected with a medical issue at such a young age, I know how helpful medical professionals can be to a child and the impact they can have,” she explains. “If I could do that for a child with a hearing loss or difficulty, that would be the most rewarding job in the world.”
Mathewson is already giving back on the court, where Coach Halverson readily admits he’s got the better end of the deal. “She teaches me more than I teach her,” he says. The most significant thing he’s learned from her? “To appreciate what we all are given.” DEANNA MURPHY
Photography by Bob Stefanko