Leading the way for Team USA
Victoria Chiesa | September 6, 2019
A chance encounter with a champion nearly two decades ago lit her fire, and now, American Dana Mathewson wants to pay it forward.
Mathewson, from San Diego, has been a stalwart for Team USA in the wheelchair tennis ranks in recent years, but were it not for a meeting with former American wheelchair champion Karin Korb in her youth, she might not have picked up the game at all.
When she was 10 years old, Mathewson, an avid young soccer player, was stricken with Transverse Myelitis, which causes the immune system to attack the spinal cord. From running around on the soccer pitch to being unable to walk in a matter of hours, the young Mathewson had a difficult time reconciling what had happened to her.
But after her mother brought her to a wheelchair tennis summer camp with Korb shortly thereafter, she set forward on a new path.ADVERTISEMENT
"I never thought about tennis [before the inury]. My mom had us play tennis sometimes just to get us out of the house during the summer, but I never really took to it," she said. "I didn't dislike it, but it was never really like, 'This is what I want to do.' For some reason after I got injured and I went to that camp, things changed. Maybe, I think tennis is more fun in a wheelchair, I'm not really sure."
In the nearly two decades since, Mathewson has thrived in a sport she might have never expected to. She reached a career-best No. 5 in the junior wheelchair world rankings in 2008, and a decade later, she cracked the women's Top 10 to become the top-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the US. She is competing in her third Open this year, as a wild card entry, ranked world No. 18.
"It's always great to be back here. It's always a really cool atmosphere here at the Open. You always have the crowd on your side, being the American, which is fun. I'm just looking forward to having a shot at the singles again this year," she said.
"With a tournament like this, at least for the wheelchair players, we have to compete against the Top 8 in the world immediately, so it's really hard to get into a tournament. Anything can happen in a matchup like that, because everyone is really good, and we've all played each other quite a lot during the year."
While she often is matched up against the best of the best in her own sport, Mathewson recently had the experience of competing alongside some of the best in others, as she went to her first Parapan American Games, held last month in Lima, Peru.
She and all of Team USA had incredible success. Each member of the six-player American contingent came home from Peru with at least one medal, and Mathewson led the way with two: a gold in women's doubles, and a bronze in women's singles.
On Thursday evening between the women's singles semifinals, Mathewson and her Parapan teammates David Wagner and Bryan Barten, also competing here at the Open, and women's doubles semifinalist Caroline Dolehide, who also won two medals at the Pan American Games, were honored for their achievements inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"It's amazing. To be able to have that exposure and be able to be honored like that in the first place is really flattering, but to have that be on a stage like Ashe, is incredible," Mathewson said, prior to the ceremony.
"My teammates and I are beyond flattered to be getting that recognition, but at the same time, we feel like we deserve it, and I'm just really excited for the opportunity. Winning a medal is one thing, but winning it with USA on your back is an extra added bonus, like a special honor. It was a kind of surreal experience.
"I'd never been to a Parapan Games before, so I didn't really have expectations for myself. To come away with two medals, and much less a gold one, is really exciting and gives you a lot of confidence going into the next few matches that you play."
The opportunity to be in front of a packed house on the biggest stage in American tennis was not lost on Mathewson, who has been a vocal advocate of raising awareness for wheelchair tennis and other adaptive sports.
"I feel honored that I could be someone else's inspiration or role model, but also I feel like there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that that I'm really flattered to have," she said.
"It's kind of my job to give back to people, the same way that people gave to me when I was learning, trying to figure out who I was, and what was going on. I'd like to be able to help younger kids: a newly-injured person, even an able-bodied person, wanting to try out tennis."
It's that intrinsic desire that Mathewson hopes will set her up for success when she decides to hang up her racquets. Currently living in London, the University of Arizona graduate is pursuing a master's degree in audiology, and would eventually like to work in pediatrics.
But, she says, she's not ready for private practice quite yet: "As of right now, I'm getting my degree so I have it. Since tennis is kind of on the up-and-up for me, I don't want to shut that door quite yet... and I'll see how long the tennis ride takes me."
This story initially ran at USOpen.org during the 2019 US Open.