Dana Mathewson grew up like any other kid in La Jolla, filling her afternoons playing soccer, and growing to love the sport to which she dedicated so much time. But her life changed considerably one afternoon when she was 10. The back soreness she experienced at soccer practice turned out to be something much more serious than she could have imagined.
Soon after Mathewson returned home following that practice, the pain got worse, and she quickly lost all feeling below her waist. Rushed to the hospital by her parents, both doctors, she was eventually diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease that causes the immune system to attack the spinal cord and results in inflammation.
In many cases, it can result in full paralysis, in Mathewson’s, she became paralyzed in her lower half.
“It was shocking,” said Mathewson, who will be a junior at The Bishop’s School in the fall. “It was a definite life change.”
Mathewson and her family struggled through a couple of months in which she was completely paralyzed, and while it wasn’t easy, she eventually got the point where she regained full use of her upper half. She now even has some function in her legs, though she mostly gets around in a wheelchair.
And while Mathewson’s soccer career was over, she has found a new athletic outlet that she said is just as fulfilling - wheelchair tennis.
Mathewson was recently nominated to play with the United States Tennis Association’s wheelchair tennis junior national team.
“My mom actually forced me to try wheelchair tennis,” Mathewson said. “After I got hurt and had to be in a wheelchair, I didn’t want to play sports, because for me, that was accepting that I was no longer able to play ambulatory sports. My mom forced me to go to a camp in Coronado when I was 13. I was kicking and screaming the whole way there, but after my first day at camp, I fell in love with the sport.”
Wheelchair tennis operates under the same rules as ambulatory tennis, with the only exception being that the ball is allowed to bounce twice, rather than once, on each side of the net.
Even if it took Mathewson some time to warm up to the sport, she soon came to love it. After the camp, she started playing with a group of adults at Barnes Tennis Center in Point Loma. The group hits every Tuesday and Thursday, and they travel to tournaments together on weekends.
“I hated the idea of it at first, but that changed once I got out there,” Mathewson said.
“Anyone who is an athlete knows that there’s no better feeling than being out there and playing your best, and I had missed that. It wasn’t soccer, but being out there and seeing that I was actually pretty good at it, it was really good to feel again. I was always really athletic, and I thought that after I got hurt, that was done. It’s a different type of living than before, but I wouldn’t consider myself not athletic. It’s still there, and it makes me really happy. It’s one of my favorite places to be, on the tennis court. I’ve made a ton of friends, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Mathewson found out via e-mail that she had been named to the junior national team, a team of six players on which she is the only member from the West coast. Next June, the team will compete in the World Team Cup in Italy.
Mathewson met some of her teammates recently at a camp in Mission Viejo and beat one of the top-ranked junior girls players in the world. Between now and next summer, she’ll be playing a lot of high level tennis.
“I’ll have to whip my butt into gear,” she joked.
Mathewson had played some tennis before she contracted transverse myelitis, but she said there are a whole new set of challenges learning to play wheelchair tennis. Just as there are specific techniques for putting topspin on the ball or hitting a solid backhand, there are techniques to be learned for moving a wheelchair around the tennis court. She has regular practice sessions with her personal coach, Steve Halverson, at the Four Seasons Aviara resort in La Costa, and plays wheelchair basketball for cross-training purposes. “He definitely knows the game very well and has been around wheelchair tennis for a long time, so I’m very lucky to have him as a coach,” Mathewson said.
With a hectic schedule that includes tennis three days a week and basketball three other days, the difficult days following her diagnosis seem long ago for Mathewson.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said.