Wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson serves a ball on clay court.

Road to Paris: Dana Mathewson loves that she’s ‘never going to be great at’ wheelchair tennis

The soon-to-be three-time Paralympian on why her sport is ideal for perfectionists like her

Wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson is on her way to her third Paralympics in August.

Marcus Smith

Words by Samantha Pak

Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!

From World Cups, to Parapan American Games, wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson has donned the Team USA uniform many times. But representing your country in the Paralympic Games is something completely different.

“Once you qualify and participate in a Paralympic Games, that is the pinnacle of sport,” the two-time Paralympian says. “Once you can say that you're a Paralympian, that's forever, and that was a huge accomplishment.”

Mathewson’s first Paralympic Games were in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She had just returned to the sport after taking some time off, so it was an exciting time.

“I remember just constantly wishing, ‘I really hope I qualify for the games. I hope I can play in the games,’” she recalls.

After finishing ninth in women’s singles and fifth in women’s doubles in Rio, and fifth in women’s singles and ninth in women’s doubles in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Mathewson is on her way to Paris for her third Games. As the top-ranked American female wheelchair tennis player, she brought home the gold at the 2023 Parapan American Games in Chile and punched her ticket to City of Light a good nine months in advance.

I recently spoke with the 33-year-old San Diego native, who is now based in Orlando and sits on the board of the Asian American Pacific Islander Tennis Association. Mathewson, whose mother is Chinese American, and I talked about her love of her sport, how taking a break helped her find her “why” again, why she loves competing in Asia, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson dressed in black sits on a clay court, holding a racket.

Dana Mathewson tried many sports as a young girl. Tennis was the one that stuck.

Courtesy of Dana Mathewson

Samantha Pak: How did you first get into tennis? Were you always an active and athletic kid?
Dana Mathewson: I definitely grew up more of an active kid. When I was 10 years old I got Transverse Myelitis, which is an autoimmune disease that left me paralyzed from the waist down. My mom looked into different adaptive sports and signed me up for rugby, basketball, tennis, and different multi-sport camps. Tennis ended up being the one that clicked.

SP: What was it about tennis versus other sports?
DM: Tennis is very attractive in that you can—at least as far as an adaptive or wheelchair sport goes—make a fair amount of money. You can travel the world. It's one of the few non-able-bodied sports to integrate with the professional able-bodied side. We play all the Grand Slams. We’re at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open. You don't see wheelchair basketball at the NBA Finals.

And I just like tennis. There's a lot of problem solving that you have to figure out and do on your own. I grew up with team sports, but I think there's something about tennis that just always appealed to me.

SP: Can you talk about that transition of being an able-bodied kid and then ending up in a wheelchair? What was that like, especially at such a young age?
DM: It was definitely hard. When you stick out like that when you're a young kid, you really want to fit in with everyone else. So having something that made me very different made things very hard. I didn't really have issues in school in terms of bullying. All of my friends were really great and very supportive. It was more of an internal struggle than something that I routinely had to go through, day in and day out. I was very lucky that way.

It would be a struggle, regardless of how old you are. It's a new way of living. The same as if someone told you that you'd have to move countries tomorrow. You'd be like, “Well, I'm not ready.” And that's just how it is. You adapt, and you'll be fine in the end, but at first it's a lot of shell shock.

SP: When did you really start to get serious about tennis and think, “I can go pro with this?”
DM: It was right before the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016. I had missed tennis after a three-year break. I started playing again and then thought, “Maybe I can try to qualify for the games.” At that time I needed to be top 25 or 24 in the world to play. I just wanted that challenge.

Wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson sits in her char with a racket stretched out to hit a tennis ball.

The Paralympics in Paris later this year will be Dana Mathewson's third Games.

Courtesy of Dana Mathewson

SP: What was it like coming back to the sport after you were gone for three years?
DM: It was good. If you do something from a young age, just because your parents put you in it, or it's just what you do as a kid, you can very quickly burn out. And I think that's what I did. Having that break, and then coming back gave me the chance to do things on my terms. I was practicing because I wanted to practice. That's not to say that I was forced to do it before, but it was just what I did before, as opposed to what I chose to do as an adult. So there was a different mindset.

SP: What's your favorite thing about the sport?
DM: You're never going to be great at it. That sounds kind of weird, because most tennis players are perfectionists. But I think that's what keeps a lot of us in it. Every match is different. If you play someone at 10 a.m., you could play them at 2 p.m. and it'll be a completely different match. That's what keeps it interesting. There's a lot of problem solving. And there's always something about the game that you can get better at because it's highly technical. There's really no way that anyone can master everything.

That makes it fun. It makes it annoying [laughs], but you always want to get better.

SP: How does it feel to have qualified for the games, nine months before?
DM: It feels good. I'm lucky enough that at this stage of my career, barring any sort of crazy injury or anything—knock on wood—I would have qualified anyway, because of where my ranking is, which is a very lucky thing, and something that I'm already proud of. It's more of how you do at the games. I still have a lot of work to do to try to be seeded at the games.

Wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson sits in a hallway in a Team USA uniform.

Dana Mathewson in her Team USA uniform before the 2020 Paralympics Opening Ceremony in Tokyo.

Courtesy of Dana Mathewson

SP: You went to Rio and Tokyo. What were those experiences like? Especially with Tokyo being “the COVID games?” What was that difference, going from one Paralympic Games to another?
DM: I'm glad that Tokyo wasn't my first. That's not to say that they didn't organize an incredible event, because they did. Probably, Japan was the best country to organize the games during a pandemic. I don't think that any other country would be so organized and diligent.

SP: You're not the first athlete who has told me that. [Laughs.]
DM: Rio would not have been able to do it—Rio barely held it in a normal time. Rio was really fun because of all the people and the atmosphere.

Tokyo, to me, was more about the performance as opposed to participation. So, I didn't mind as much that people weren't there. Of course, that was a bummer. But it made it feel like any other tournament and I could just put my head down and go to work. It was sad that there weren't a lot of people—like when I played in stadiums that were empty. But then you remind yourself that there are people watching on live streams and things like that. The atmosphere was very, very different.

I'm always proud to represent a lot of different groups. I'm lucky that I get to represent America, I get to represent women in general, women with disabilities, Asian American women. I take it as a badge of honor to represent all those different groups.

SP: What was it like in Tokyo, representing the U.S. and being Asian American, at a time when it was so tough to be part of our community because of all the violence and racism?
DM: I'm half white and until I've told them I'm Chinese, most people don't readily see that I am. So, I myself didn't experience a lot of hate, but my family did. It was very frustrating to know that my family members have received comments or slurs or things like that.

But I'm always proud to represent a lot of different groups. I'm lucky that I get to represent America, I get to represent women in general, women with disabilities, Asian American women. I take it as a badge of honor to represent all those different groups. Especially during that time, I was very proud to do that, but it wasn't forefront in my mind. Just because you try not to have so many external thoughts.

SP: What would you tell 10-year-old Dana now that you're a Paralympian?
DM: “Trust the process.” So much of life, regardless if you have a disability, or if you're an athlete, can be very frustrating, just trying to figure out who you are, what you're good at. And once you find out what, even getting better at it is a pain. [Laughs.] So just reminding yourself to trust the process and enjoy the moment. That would probably be really good advice for me.

I'm the type of person that when I work hard for something, it's hard when I don't immediately see results. And that's just not how life is—especially not tennis.  But it’s also incredibly rewarding when things do go your way. Tennis mimics life a lot that way.

SP: What are your favorite places to compete?
DM: This is not just because of who I'm talking to [laughs], but I love playing in Asia. We have tournaments in South Korea and Japan, and I really like going to those tournaments. I don't have a problem eating rice all the time. Some players are like, “Everything's just rice. I haven't pooped in days.” [Laughs.]

I really like, culturally, how it is over there. Everything has structure. The people are so welcoming and so proud to show you their country. And that's not something that you see everywhere you go. I also like the feeling that when I go there, I'm far away. Sometimes, you go to Europe, and it's like, “It's different, but it's not that different.” But when you go to Asia, you're like, “Whoa, I'm not home.” And that's kind of fun.

Japanese wheelchair tennis player Yui Kamiji and American wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson, in white, hold a trophy together at Wimbledon.

From left, Japanese wheelchair tennis player Yui Kamiji and Dana Mathewson hold their doubles trophy from Wimbledon 2022. Outside of the Paralympics, athletes from different countries often pair up for doubles teams.

Courtesy of Dana Mathewson

SP: You play singles and doubles. Are you automatically paired up with someone at the Paralympics or do you have a partner that you play together with all the time?
DM: My partner would need to qualify still. We have a lot of players that are coming up the pipeline, notably Maylee Phelps, who's 17. She's gonna be the new star of everything. She's got a really bright future. She really loves tennis—probably more than I ever did—so she's probably going to accomplish a whole lot more than me. She and I won the gold medal at the Parapans last year for doubles.

She's very young, and this would be her first Paralympic Games. So that has its own challenges, but in terms of having someone with a lot of talent who really loves the sport and has a long way to go in a great way, that's Maylee. I'm pretty sure that she will qualify and then I would more than likely play doubles with her there.

SP: What are you looking forward to with Paris and at the Paralympics?
DM: I'm looking forward to another chance to represent my country and having my family there. It's really hard to have a lot of family support and come watch you—just because your family has jobs too. They can't take time off and travel to Barcelona just for a week to watch you play a wheelchair tennis tournament. I'm excited to share that experience with them. I'm a little nervous just because I don't usually play in front of them. So you want to be like, “Yeah, this is what I've been doing this whole time.” [Laughs.] You don’t want to play really terribly and have them be like, “Really?”

SP: The Paralympics are the highest level of any sport, and it's all these different sports. In your past Paralympic experiences, what was it like to meet other athletes from other sports?
DM: It's really fun. We all do different things for Team USA, but at the end of the day, we're all on one team together. And that's really cool, just to see how big that family is. During the year, each sport doesn't really go out of their little sport bubble. When you stay in the village, everyone is sharing the same spaces. And you're seeing people from every single country and you're around them all the time.

It's like all of a sudden, all the best athletes in the world are going to boarding school together. That's kind of the environment, right? You all eat in the same dining hall. You go to sleep in dormitories. And you get the bus to go to work, or go to “school.” Everyone that you're surrounded by is really, really good at something. It's really rare that you have that in your life, and it's a really cool environment to be a part of.

Published on June 5, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.