TOKYO, Japan— At the age of 30, two-time Paralympian Dana Mathewson is the number one American female wheelchair tennis player and number eight player in the entire world. But the first time her mother ever dragged an unwilling pre-teen Mathewson to the first practice of the sport she now dominates at, the purpose was to give her a childhood hobby.
“I didn’t pick up a racket with the intent to become a Paralympian,” she says.
She hadn’t wanted to pick up the racket at all at first, but her mother heavily encouraged her towards an athletic pursuit after she was diagnosed with her condition at the age of 10.
She recalls the day quite clearly. She had been at soccer practice doing sprints when she was struck by an unfamiliar sensation.
“I felt my back go into the most extreme pain ever… It felt like someone was stabbing me. And it was repetitive, just over and over and over.”
Her coach encouraged her to keep running as her legs began to feel “heavier and heavier.” Two hours later, she started feeling pins and needles in her legs.
“Then, like that, they just went quiet. Like a blackout in your house. I remember looking at my foot, trying to move my toes, and nothing was happening.”
After being rushed to the hospital where they performed MRIs, she was diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune disease called transverse myelitis. It causes swelling around her lower spine, damaging the nerves. She got to the hospital quickly enough to be administered steroids to stop the swelling before it could worsen. For that reason, she has restored feeling in her legs and now has some mobility as well.
She recalls thinking she would walk out of the hospital. Her mother, a pediatrician, knew the situation was far more serious and immediately began planning for their future. She put her in wheelchair sports- such as rugby, basketball and tennis, the last of which finally sparked something in her and allowed her to envision life as a para-athlete.
“I credit my whole career to my mom forcing me to go, because I definitely wouldn’t have tried that on my own,” Mathewson says.
And now, 20 years later, she is at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics competing as one of the top female wheelchair tennis players in the world.
She says representing her country pushes her to excel.
“Getting to wear the letters USA on your back is such a big honor. As cliche as it sounds, it inspires me to compete harder because I’m not just competing for myself, I’m representing the land that I’m from. So it’s a big honor, I love it every time.”
Not only is Mathewson an incredible athlete, but she’s always been highly studious. She has a strong love of knowledge and problem-solving in particular, which is part of what she loves so much about tennis. For the same reasons, she is passionate about her field of study- audiology.
“All the aspects of my life require me to more or less be on and to solve something at that point in time, which keeps it fresh and exciting.”
She compares seeing new patients to solving puzzles, which is parallel to the way she thinks on-court. She is ever-enthusiastic about strategizing; It’s what keeps her going.
But even more motivating for Mathewson is the love and support she receives from all the people in her life- her friends, her boyfriend, her dog and of course, her family.
Mathewson is Chinese on her mother’s side and Scottish/Polish on her father’s side.
“I’m a hybrid of things, which I guess is America in a nutshell.”
Even so, she says that she identifies majorly as Chinese because she is so close to her Chinese family, for whom the past year and a half has been extremely challenging.
“Being Asian has been a hot topic recently, and it’s not something I’ve been immune to or my family has been immune to in terms of jokes people make about COVID,” she says. “I know that some of my aunts who live in different parts of the country were asked ‘where were you actually born? Were you born in America or are you Chinese-Chinese?’ and things like that, with more biting undertones.”
She says people have joked about COVID being her and her family’s fault. But she is unflinching in the face of discrimination, and it only inspires her further in her ambition.
“I think the fact that I get to represent a community that’s being marginalized more than it has in the past is something that I’m honored to do. . . [I’m] very proud to be Chinese. Don’t care what people are saying about Chinese people now. They’re all wrong,” She says with a big smile on her face.
As for the ways that the pandemic has affected the Paralympic experience for her, she says she’s going to miss the cheering crowds.
“That [the stadiums] will be more or less quiet will be anticlimactic to say the least and then disheartening as well, because you play year in and year out to get to that big moment, and so it would almost be like having someone who stars on Broadway to play to an empty house. There’s no thrill in that.”
She adds that knowing that only 7% of the Japanese public expressed wanting the games to occur makes her feel like an intruder in someone else’s home.
Yet she finds a silver lining in the games having been delayed. She compared it to having an exam that’s been postponed and having more time to study.
“I’d like to think that the athlete that I’m going to be going into Tokyo in 2021 is a lot stronger and fitter and smarter than the athlete that was going to go into Tokyo 2020.”
Mathewson fondly remembers one moment during the opening ceremonies in Rio where she saw her family cheering for her in the stands. She says it makes her emotional to think about.
“I’ll be thinking of that moment when I’m coming into the stadium in Tokyo, for sure.”