Courting a Dream
Julia Dorsett '91 plays wheelchair tennis in the 2004 Athens Summer Paralympics.
by Lorraine Berry
Freshman year of college brings with it all sorts of challenges that lead to change. For Julia Dorsett '91, freshman year at Ithaca College brought a challenge that she lives with still. During winter break, while she was steering her SUV, the vehicle flipped. Julia, a multiple sports player -- lacrosse, field hockey, and basketball -- was left a paraplegic.
After two months of rehabilitation and a semester off, she returned to the IC campus, but Julia was different. So were her friends. "The best thing for me was going back to school," she says, "but it was also hard because my friends were doing their own thing and I felt left out. Lessons were great. But socially it was a little bit hard, to be a teenager with your whole life changed. College is a time of growing pains, but for me they were amplified. I felt like an inconvenience. When I stayed in the quads, there wasn't a curb cut near the cafeteria. To get to the communications building, I had to go all the way down the street."
A communications major, Julia felt fortunate that almost all of her classes were in one building. To accommodate her, the College moved all her classes to accessible rooms.
After a year Julia moved off campus to accessible housing in Circle Apartments. She could then drive her car to campus and park close to the communications building. There her favorite teacher was Howard Cogan, who ran Ad Lab. "He was the best professor," she says. "His classes were so much fun." Cogan also became an advocate for Julia, assisting her in getting the College to put in needed curb cuts.
Julia returned to her hometown of Philadelphia after graduating with a concentration in public relations and double minor in art and writing. She worked for a time as a PR assistant at Women's Way, an organization that aids battered women, and then took a job at a hotel.
Soon after this she discovered a new love: scuba diving. "It's something I'm able to do as well as anyone else -- you're weightless in the water. I'm independent in the water, if a little slower." She began volunteering with the Handicapped Scuba Association and still does.
Then in 1998 Julia attended a lecture at a rehab center on wheelchair tennis. Intrigued, she decided to give the sport a shot.
She had a knack for it, and it renewed her. "Tennis got me motivated to get in shape," she says, "but also to get back out there. Now I travel all over the world with tennis. I've been to Fiji twice, Australia twice, New Zealand." Julia competes all over the United States, too. She moved full-time to Florida three years ago; it makes more sense for year-round training. "My former coach David Crowe lives in Boca Raton. The Paralympics coach in Atlanta, he helped my game tremendously in the beginning. And there are many good players here to practice with."
Wheelchair tennis differs little from able-bodied tennis. "I play with able-bodied people," says Julia. "They get one bounce, I get two. The first one has to land inbounds, the second can land out." All other rules are the same. "I had never played before my injury, so my techniques were all learned brand-new from the chair," she points out. "My stroke production is pretty good, since I wasn't out there teaching myself bad habits."
The strategy differs a bit. "There's not a lot of lateral movement in wheelchair tennis," Julia explains. "I'm constantly moving. The biggest part of my game is reverse mobility; I hit the ball and try to get back behind the baseline. If my back is turned and I'm looking behind me, I can get my chair there without having to stop and start again. Picture what I'm doing as a figure-eight kind of movement. But that's theThe image "http://www.discoverythroughdesign.org/im only difference between wheelchair and able-bodied tennis. They're pretty equal."
Julia is currently ranked 19th in the world. She credits tennis with changing her life -- again. After her accident, she says, "finding tennis was when I started to fit in. When you're playing sports you are part of a positive group of people. That helped in dealing with my injury and getting healthy again. And I found out that I was really good at it." She is so good at it, in fact, that she is representing the United States at the Paralympics in Athens. "I'm excited," she says. "It's my first Olympics experience. But I'm nervous. I want to bring home a medal. I think my doubles partner and I have a good chance."
She credits her former coach Jay Bosworth with helping her arrive at such a position. "His coaching got me onto the World Team Cup -- the Davis Cup of wheelchair tennis.," Julia says. "I wouldn't be here without him."
And after Athens? With three other gifted women with spinal cord injuries, Julia formed a nonprofit organization called Discovery through Design. Its primary purpose is to raise funds to find a cure for spinal cord injuries and related neurological disorders, while at the same time celebrating the beauty, style, and resilience of women in wheelchairs. Julia will devote her energies to the organization, and she also wants to give kids a chance to experience what she has. "There's this great organization in Coconut Grove called Shake a Leg," she says. "It teaches disabled kids to sail. I'd like to start a program where kids could learn to scuba dive."
It's important to stay healthy when you're competing in world athletic events and working hard in the nonprofit arena. "I try to hit [tennis balls] six days a week and do cross-training three times a week," Julia says. "I also see a sport psychologist -- tennis is 90 percent mental. And I try to eat well and get plenty of sleep." Training for a Paralympics title has been a serious workout, but Julia's not complaining as she gets ready for the trip to Athens. "It's a full-time job," she smiles, "but a nice one."