Dana tried a myriad of adaptive sports starting at age 13, including wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, but tennis is the one she fell in love with.
Dana is currently competing for the U.S.A. at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo! She is also open to speaking, media, and partnership opportunities.
Dana is a professional wheelchair tennis player and a Paralympian for Team USA since 2008. At age 10, she contracted a rare autoimmune disease called Transverse Myelitis. The cause of the disease is still unknown due to its rarity, but it leaves people paralyzed at varying levels depending on where it attacks your spine. For it, it got her at her waistline leaving her partially paraplegic.
TENNIS SHOWS YOU HOW CAPABLE YOUR BODY REALLY IS!
By Rich Neher
When I connected with Dana on LinkedIn I decided that she was the first-ever female wheelchair tennis professional I wanted to interview. With the help of her agent Ish Tanyeri, that was quickly arranged. Ish also sent over a bunch of great photos. Others I took from Dana's website. Please also listen to Dana's ITF interview posted on LinkedIn. I have also added some thoughts from Jason Harnett, the USTA's National Manager and Head Coach - Wheelchair. Plus a message from Quad legend David Wagner.
TCB: Hi Dana, after your accident at age 10, you tried a lot of adaptive sports and ended up falling in love with tennis at age 13. Why tennis?
DM: I'm not really sure why tennis clicked, to be honest! Funnily enough, prior to me trying wheelchair tennis, I never really had an interest in the sport. My mom signed me and my brother up for tennis camps when I was able-bodied, but I don't remember really enjoying the sport very much - or at least, not as much as I do now. I think at that stage of my life, with so much I was suddenly told I'm unable to do or was physically unable to do, finding tennis was incredible. It's an individual sport, so it showed me what I was capable of doing on my own and taught me how to find a new form of independence. The sport helped me grow. I was able to travel and see the world, meet incredible people, and learn self-reliance through a technically super challenging, but also incredibly rewarding sport.
TCB: How did your tennis game develop? Did you receive some coaching? Did you have a mentor?
DM: I learned tennis from a variety of different individuals. When I first started playing tennis, I went to the Barnes Tennis Center in San Diego, CA where I'm from. I learned to play from a group of people that went there twice a week, and all of those players quickly became like my older brothers and sisters and made me feel so welcome since I was the youngest one there. Later, I got my first tennis coach, Steve Halverson who works in Carlsbad, CA. He is the one who taught me all of my fundamental skills and I credit a lot of my tennis game to working with him. He was my coach all through high school and occasionally would work with me when I went home from college. I think a big part of my growth, however, has been what I've learned from other players and coaches on tour. I got a lot of advice from professionals on tour since they noticed I never traveled with a coach (it was too expensive), and sort of took me under their wing. Now, I am fortunate enough to have moved to Orlando, FL, and train full-time at the USTA's National Campus. For the first time in my career, I have my own "team", with a strength and conditioning coach, mental skills coach, and tennis coach. I have lived here for about a year and a half now, and have seen tremendous changes in myself as a tennis player throughout these months.
TCB: Growing up in San Diego, have you heard of Geoff Griffin’s Wounded Warrior program at Balboa Park? Did you ever go there?
DM: I did help with a Wounded Warrior program once in Balboa Park, but unfortunately I didn't have a lot of exposure to that program, but I've heard great things and wish I had more time with them! I love helping out at camps or programs that help introduce people to tennis, so next time I'm home in San Diego, I'll look them up!
TCB: When did you know you had it in you to compete internationally and what motivated you to do so?
DM: I think I honestly just had the itch to do it and try! I never competed overseas until I decided to try to qualify for the Rio Paralympics in 2016. I had about a year to qualify, and I decided to fully commit to traveling that year to do it. That was one of the best years of my life! That was the first year I got to travel and compete in places like Asia, Europe, Australia, etc. and it was amazing.
David Wagner, former world no. 1 and current world no. 3 Quad Wheelchair tennis player who is also currently competing in doubles at the Tokyo Paralympics, sent us this message for Dana:
"Dana has been training hard at the national campus and it shows on the court. She has been doing great things for the sport of wheelchair tennis, and I look forward to watching her continue and become one of the sport's greats."
TCB: Tell us about your equipment. Are you being sponsored by a racquet manufacturer? Is your wheelchair a custom chair? Where did you get it?
DM: I am sponsored by Wilson, and have been with them for the majority of my career. I play with the Wilson Ultra 100. As far as the chair goes, yes it is custom. All chairs (including the day chair I use when I'm not playing tennis), are custom and that's how it is for most athletes with a disability. The idea for a chair is that it is an accessory or extension of your body, as opposed to a piece of furniture you're sitting in. By getting chairs specifically made for us, the chair can then move seamlessly with us, as we use our bodies. They are lightweight, fit to our body shape and size, and comfortable, yet incredibly functional. My tennis chair is designed for speed and agility, while my everyday chair is designed to be functional and lightweight.
TCB: What was your thought process in regards to studying for a career while you could also see a career in professional tennis?
DM: I was brought up with a lot of emphasis on schooling. My mom would always tell me that "school is your job", and I took that to heart. I enjoy learning, and I like the challenge that comes with working towards a degree or working towards an athletic goal. As a result, I think it was an easy choice to complete a degree while pursuing my athletic career. Also, I know that athletic careers cannot and will not last forever. Our bodies can only perform at a high level for so long, and I knew that I would need a Plan B to fall back upon. My aim with obtaining a higher education is to set myself up the best way possible for when the time comes that tennis is no longer an option.
TCB: You received a Ph.D. in Audiology at University College London. What attracted you to audiology and what career do you see in the future in that field?
DM: I obtained a Masters in Audiology at University College London, but am currently getting my clinical doctorate or Au.D. (not a Ph.D., since it's clinically based, the same as doctorates that dentists or psychologists get) online through A.T. Still University. My time studying in London was amazing, and I really grew a lot as a person. I chose audiology because I am interested in healthcare since it impacted me so much when I was younger when I was injured. I also am a science geek and love how technical the field is. Lastly, I wanted to find a career that impacted lives and helped people. My life has been touched by so many others, and I'd love to be able to help someone else the same way someday.
TCB: In 2016 you competed at the Rio Paralympics. What does it mean to you to be a Paralympian?
DM: Being a Paralympian is an amazing accomplishment and something I'm very proud of. Wearing your country's flag on your shirt or the letters 'USA' on your back is the highest honor, and something I get chills thinking about sometimes. I think that within the elite sporting world, we can forget how big of a deal it is that we get to represent our countries again and again. I try to let the gravity of the opportunity resonate each time. I feel like I play more competitively and with more fire when I compete in team events for the USA because I know people are depending on me, and there feels like there's more at stake. I love that I get to have these opportunities and I can't wait to feel this way again in Tokyo.
TCB: You will be competing in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo from August 24-September 5. How excited are you to be one of the U.S. Paralympians?
DM: The Tokyo 2020 US Paralympic Team will feature 240 Paralympians this year!!! I know for tennis itself, we have 7 players, and I am very proud and excited to be part of that team. We will have three women going, two men, and two quads. We are a good group of people who have had friendships for years, so I'm looking forward to sharing this experience with them. I know that Tokyo will be complicated with all of the added requirements and restrictions that come with Covid, but I'm glad that the Games are still happening. I'm disappointed that my family and friends can no longer be there to support me physically, but I am glad that they can watch me on TV from home. This is the first year that NBC will showcase the Paralympics on Prime Time TV, so it's a historic year!
TCB: Will you play singles and doubles in Tokyo?
DM: Yes, I will play singles and doubles at the Games. I will be playing doubles with my teammate, Shelby Baron.
TCB: What would you say to a disabled person who may have never played tennis? Should they pick up wheelchair tennis and why?
DM: If I talked to someone who was disabled and new to tennis, I'd definitely urge them to try it. Tennis is amazing in that it can show you how capable your body really is, despite a disability. By nature of being a singular sport, you are forced to do the work, and therefore reap the benefits of your own efforts, which is an amazing feeling.
Tennis is also amazing in that you can earn a living playing it (unlike most adaptive sports), and that you can travel the world and have amazing experiences. Even if you don't compete at a high level, wheelchair tennis has the chance to teach you so much about yourself, connect you with amazing people, and leave you with a new sense of confidence and independence that can be life-changing. Lastly, wheelchair tennis is one of the most inclusive adaptive sports, in that you can almost seamlessly incorporate it with the able-bodied game. The only difference is that a wheelchair tennis player can use two bounces, but literally everything else about the game of tennis is the same, down to court-size, net-height, scoring, etc. This means that you can get out and play with any and all of your friends.
TCB: Thank you, Dana. Good luck in Tokyo!
We asked Jason Harnett: What would you say to disabled people who never played tennis why they should pick up the sport and where should they start with their journey?
Jason: "Tennis is a wonderful sport that is both social and the most easily integrated for able-bodied folks and persons with disabilities to get out and enjoy together, with the only rule adaptation being that the wheelchair athlete can use a second bounce if they need to. Getting back into life after an injury can seem daunting, but SPORT brings us all together as human beings. And PLAYING sports together is the ultimate in camaraderie and having a shared experience... Tennis is the very best at this! And it leads to a healthy physical, healthy social, and wonderfully healthy lifestyle for one's mind that you can play for your entire life...You can start your journey with a family member or friend on any tennis court, and in a more organized fashion, reach out to your local USTA sectional staff, and they can guide you to the nearest wheelchair tennis program in your area... That is where the journey of a lifetime begins!"
Dana's agent Ish Tanyeri offers some clarification in regards to Grand Slam Rules:
I wanted to provide some additional context to the Grand Slam rules when it comes to wheelchair players, explain the ITF rules, and how this impacts players like Dana. Unlike in able-bodied tennis, which allows the top 100 players to compete in the Grand Slams, ITF rules for a wheelchair tennis player is that a player must rank top seven internationally. This creates an odd spot for an elite athlete like Dana herself, who ranks top eight and is nothing but consistent in her game. Based on her current training regimen and her recent performance stats, her coaches believe Dana is very likely to break into the top 7 in singles to qualify for Roland Garros and Wimbledon over the next year. This year, she made history by being the first American woman to ever compete in Roland Garros' wheelchair division because someone in the top 7 could not make it to the tournament.
Here is the link to an interview with USTA where Dana explains it in her words or see below:
"One is breaking through a steady barrier she's faced: the top-seven in the world rankings. Positioning in that range not only affords wheelchair players direct entry to Grand Slams—currently, the four majors have eight-player draws with one wild card entry, though Mathewson says discussions of expanding draws have taken place amongst the Grand Slams—but the financial stability that comes with it.
"That's definitely been the goal for a long time, but it's now the goal more than ever," Mathewson said. "The fact that I'm ranked where I am, but I can't play at a Grand Slam is pretty insane if you think about it. On the able-bodied tour, the Slams are where they have the biggest draws, and for us, it's the exact opposite. You'd never seen an eight-player draw at any of our other tournaments. I am used to being just like the able-bodied players where I'm on the road at 20-plus tournaments a year, living out of a suitcase, living in hotels. Our tour works very similarly to theirs. We're just in different places. But because the wheelchair tour is still growing, unfortunately, the Slams are the only place where there's a lot of prize money and a lot of points to be earned. But our depth of play has also increased, and players in the Top 15 are all really competitive with people in the Top 10, Top 5. So many points that can be won at Slams that whoever gets to play those just keep staying up there, and it's really hard for anyone to break in. If you can allow those big points to be earned by more people, it would even things out a little bit.
"I think also for people that have gone to the Slams and are used to seeing those same top-seven players, fans watching, that maybe gets a little bit boring. I think it would be nice to have more of a mix of players so they could see that it's not just eight people that go around the world playing each other."
We asked Jason Harnett: In wheelchair tennis, only 7 players in each category are invited + 1 wildcard. If you’re not top 7 in the world, you will not compete at a slam. What is the USTA’s position on this in light of the fact that hundreds of able-bodied players would be eligible to play Grand Slams? Is there an effort to change those rules?
Jason: "I would say that the USTA does not have an "official" position on this, as the ITF is the managing body for the wheelchair tennis tour on an international level. What I can say for myself, as one of the long-standing coaches in wheelchair tennis, is that there are discussions about expanding the draws for the Men, Women, and Quad divisions, as they have not been expanded since 2005 in any of the Grand Slams. The Quad division is now quietly expanding to equal draw sizes as the Men and Women, in having 8 competitors (The Australian Open and US Open have committed to this, but the French Open and Wimbledon are still pending). But with 500+ ranked Men's Open players in the world, 200+ Women Open players, and 100+ Quad Open players, there is most definitely room for growth in draw sizes and prize money for the athletes. Everything has a time and place, and the time for expansion is coming..."
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