Laura Ortiz has learned the sport of tennis, ran two triathlons and started a career as a personal trainer – all after losing her leg six years ago. The upbeat Miami native is now trying to add another role to her sporting resume: US Open ballperson.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USOpen.org
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – Laura Ortiz walked away from Court 11 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with her head held high and with a faint smile that was strictly for show, meant to hide her disappointment.
“Definitely want another chance,” said Ortiz, who felt she could have performed better after her 2014 US Open Ballperson tryout. In particular, she’s disappointed with some of the cross-court throws she’s misfired wide of the target. “My arm was just, like, everywhere – I couldn’t ground myself.”
Her struggles on this one day, however, cannot overshadow the fact that Ortiz – who lost her right leg below the knee after a motorcycle accident six years ago – has accomplished more on one leg than most will ever do on two.
Life for Ortiz in its 44 years has been defined by achievement over hardship. She accepted that she wasn’t the best at any one sport, or career, right at the start, but she always got there with time and effort. She spent eight years between 1993 and 2001 as part of the U.S. Army National Guard and was honorably discharged after years of being a combat medic and lab technician.
She learned the discipline to save a life, her own included.
“I grew up in situations where people around us talked about making a better living but never doing much about it,” said Ortiz. “Serving my country was my way to reach my potential, and [it] provided the self-worth and the courage I needed to get through any challenge in the future.”
Raised by a single mother, Francisca, Ortiz spent her childhood bouncing back between housing projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., New Jersey and her native Puerto Rico. Her older sister, Yolanda, died in a car accident when Ortiz was just 13. From then on, Ortiz served as her mother’s primary caretaker as the family moved to Miami in 1998. Francisca – described as “stubborn” by her daughter – lived an unhealthy lifestyle that eventually led to health problems, including diabetes. She died in March 2008.
Spurred on by her mother’s struggles, Ortiz set out to live healthy, going vegan and exercising regularly. But less than six months after Francisca’s passing, Ortiz’s life was interrupted again. She was out riding her motorcycle when she was clipped from behind by the bumper a speeding car. The Harley Davidson enthusiast was launched nearly 50 feet from the impact, the force and trauma of the crash landing nearly severing her right leg just below the knee. She was airlifted to the hospital, where doctors suggested amputation after several attempts to reattach the leg.
The driver of the car never stopped to see the fate of the woman whose life he or she had changed forever. Yet, to this day, Ortiz holds no ill feelings toward the person – no reason, or time, to hate.
“There’s a sense of urgency that comes with a second chance at life,” said Ortiz. “The journey is defined by humility, faith and service – I have always wanted to give back because I’ve felt so blessed. I still get to live, and that’s a great thing.”
Six years have passed and Ortiz remains determined to make the most of her life, now with a new prosthetic leg that she has learned to run on with strong strides. When she was dissatisfied with her initial rehabilitation from the accident, she designed a rehab plan for herself. From that education and her own life experience, combined with lessons learned from the Army, Ortiz now makes a living in part as a personal trainer.
Still, for all her athletic and fitness endeavors – Ortiz completed two triathlons in 2012 – she was a latecomer to tennis. In fact, she took up the game just three years ago when she was invited out to California to attend a week-long camp for wounded veterans and their families hosted by Steve Kappes, a retired U.S. Navy captain who now serves as the president of the San Diego District Tennis Association.
Kappes, who developed the camp for wounded veterans to rehabilitate through tennis, was taken by Ortiz. Upon arriving at the camp, she immediately shook hands with him and impressed everyone in attendance with her upbeat, energetic rapport with her fellow vets.
“She has been one of our most inspiring participants,” said Kappes. “Her great personality and attitude match her athletic ability. Laura helps people. She helps them be successful on the court regardless of their own injuries and encourages them to be more active in life. Her positivity and passion make us all want to be better, and she’s made what we do in running our camp all the more gratifying.”
After Ortiz took part in a third San Diego camp, Kappes suggested that she could be a part of the US Open if she wanted as a ballperson. That led to this day, and the slow walk from Court 11 into an uncertain future, at least as far as New York goes.
Every other part of her future she holds, owns and cherishes.
“I had fun,” said Ortiz. “Coming back to a place that was and still is, in many ways, my home to compete has made it a wonderful trip, and everyone was so friendly and organized. You really learn that being a ballperson requires a lot of skill.
“Now I know what to expect – this year, or next year, I know I can do this.”