Chicago native Earl Jordan has excelled in not only Wheelchair Tennis, but also competitive basketball, softball, cycling and kayaking.
© USTA Midwest
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com, and Katy Waggoner, special to USTA.com
From the age of 15, wheelchair sports provided Earl Jordan with an outlet for personal expression. Jordan was born with a damaged spinal cord that impaired his ability to walk, but that hardly deterred him from competing. In fact, he played whatever sport was available, be it wheelchair basketball, softball, tennis, cycling or kayaking.
"My mother got me involved in wheelchair sports to get me active," Jordan said. "When I grew up in the 1980s, recreational opportunities for people with disabilities (PWDs) weren’t as publicized or accessible as they are today.
"When I reached my teens, I was starting to age out of some of the younger kid camps that were offered in the summer time. She searched out opportunities for me to stay active and out of trouble in the summer. She found that the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago offered wheelchair sports to PWDs and contacted one of the recreation therapists there at the time, Bob Trotter. From there, I got into wheelchair basketball and softball."
Jordan, now 42, hasn’t stopped playing since – with one very notable exception that nearly cost Jordan his life.
As a teenager, he excelled at wheelchair basketball, earning a spot with the Chicago Dawgs, one of the first youth wheelchair sports teams in the United States. He continued playing into college, earning All-America honors all four years (1992-96) at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC).
Jordan took up competitive tennis in college on the recommendation of his basketball coach, Kim Martin, who suggested he play tennis as a way to stay in shape during the offseason.
"At first I was reluctant," Jordan said, "but after trying it I enjoyed it and I was pretty competitive playing it so I decided to keep playing it. As a youth I had heard of wheelchair tennis but never was seriously introduced to it."
Yet Jordan gave the game a chance, having heard about the success of Randy Snow, the International Tennis Hall of Famer and American Paralympian who had experienced positive motivation and new challenges in tennis after success in other wheelchair sports.
"Tennis became intriguing," Jordan said. "I love that fact that win or lose, the outcome is totally on me. It’s a game that can really improve your confidence if you focus."
In 1998, however, it all nearly came to an end. During a road trip to Denver for a national competition, the van carrying Jordan and his teammates flipped and rolled over. One of the passengers was killed. Jordan was critically injured, suffering a punctured lung, a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury that left him in a coma for a month’s time.
"I was in the hospital for three months and outpatient rehab for a couple months after that," said Jordan. "That period was definitely a challenge for me. The physical and mental obstacles are very large. I was all of a sudden taken from being an elite athlete to not being able to catch a basketball, or being able to remember something that was said to me four minutes prior in a conversation because my short-term memory was damaged.
"It was a very humbling experience, but with the support from my family, friends, doctors and administrators and teachers form SIUC, I recovered."
Improving his tennis skills – "Now that I’m older, I’m really kicking myself for not taking the sport more serious in college," he said – became a minor obsession in the years after the fateful incident.
"I felt that I needed a change in my life," said Jordan. "I wasn’t really enjoying basketball and softball the way that I had in the past, and tennis continued to be a challenge. There’s such a mental aspect to the game that’s unique – it became the game for me." So Jordan scaled back basketball and softball to concentrate on improving between the baselines.
The work paid off. In 2012, Jordan won the USTA Midwest Wheelchair Championships C singles title.
"I’m going to play for as long as my body allows me, until I can’t play anymore," vowed Jordan.
Today, Jordan remains involved as a player and has embraced the role of mentor, volunteering his time as an assistant coach the Chicago Skyhawks youth wheelchair basketball team. He remains excited about all athletic endeavors and the idea that his influence can convince a new generation of players to never quit moving forward.
"I just want to expose more people with disabilities to sports," Jordan said. "It opens so many doors. Just watching players evolve to be better players is really cool."