This article is not about a wheelchair. And it is not about tennis. It is about self-motivation, improvement and simple decisions to eliminate invisible barriers.
While Jamie Burdekin and Esther Vergeer’s stories are different, their lessons are quite similar.
Jamie and Esther represent some of the best tennis talent on the planet. They are connected through the game, but also the chair through which they play it.
Jamie was already an up-and-coming wheelchair tennis player when he injured his wrist while training. The diagnosis was not good. In order to have a chance to play again, he would need surgery. Even then, playing might not happen again his doctors told him. It is one thing to become a great wheelchair tennis player. It is another to re-learn how to be a world-class tennis player.
But for a man who has beaten the odds before, Jamie took it in stride and blocked all of the negativity out. He even went so far as to ease the worry of the doctor, assuring him of his faith in the doctor’s skills. What would happen, would happen.
Jamie did make it back to the court, but it was slow and sometimes painful, both physically and emotionally. For a man who had been the fifth-best player in the world prior to the injury, it just wasn’t the same. And to add insult to injury, during his rehab his coach had Jamie use a smaller racquet, tennis balls made for beginners and a mini-net. It wasn’t all fun and games for Jamie. He said it was a bit embarrassing at times and people gave him strange looks, but he was back on the court playing tennis. Before the accident the landed him in a wheelchair, Jamie had never played tennis, and after his accident he started playing with a full-size racquet and on a full-size court. Having the surgery on his wrist was a risk, but also a blessing. It gave not only the coaches a chance to improve every aspect of his game but also it allowed Jamie to learn the game like children do every day around the world.
And while Jamie did not win a medal at the London Olympics, he does not fear what is next, just what he can do with what he has.
For Esther, who recently retired, she became wheelchair-bound at a young age, but did not let that stop her.
Of all the athletes, politicians, doctors, and writers I have met, Esther is probably the most humble, honest, and hardest working I will ever meet. I will never forget when I re-connected with her in 2010. I was at a tournament site when she checked in with the tournament director. She had come straight from the airport to get in a short hit with her coach. I left the site to get to the tournament hotel for a quick workout before my dinner. Who did I run into in the hotel gym later the night? Esther. Here is a woman who is the No. 1 women’s wheelchair tennis player on the planet. She was the Roger Federer of her sport. But what struck me was the fact that while all her competitors were out having dinner and relaxing, the best player in the world and favorite to win the tournament was at the gym continuing to work to get even better.
Who knew that when Esther had spinal surgery at age eight (which landed her in the wheelchair), that she would change the face of wheelchair tennis 25 years later. As an eight-year-old, she first picked up basketball, but soon added tennis, and in 1998, decided to focus only on tennis. A year later she was the best in the world. She is a woman who, even as a young child, took the unknown and embraced it. One other thing you should know about Esther, who retired in early 2013 from the game, was that she last lost a tennis match in January 2003. In that time, she won 470 straight matches and spent an astounding 668 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world.
Jamie and Esther are living proof that limitations are choices and that those limits are just manifestations of fear.