Twice as nice: Rydberg wins doubles gold for U.S.Jon Rydberg, the East Ridge girls tennis team head coach, and his doubles partner Steve Welch won gold for the United States at the Parapan American Games held in Guadalajara, Mexico from Nov. 14 through 18.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, Woodbury Bulletin
For Jon Rydberg, the 2011 Parapan American Games will be one to remember.
Rydberg, the East Ridge girls tennis team head coach, and his doubles partner Steve Welch won gold for the United States at the Parapan American Games held in Guadalajara, Mexico from Nov. 14 through 18.
“It’s always cool to win. It’s the best feeling there is,” Rydberg said. “The fans that were there and the atmosphere before, during and after the match put an exclamation point on it all.”
Every four years over 20 countries from North America and South America gather to compete at the Parapan Am Games. Started in 1999, the Parapan American Games are an international multi-sport event for athletes with a physical disability. This year, an estimated 1,500 athletes competed in 13 different sports from 26 countries.
Rydberg, who was injured in an accident when he was 13 months old and is now in a wheelchair, said this event is special to him because he is representing the United States.
The Parapan American Games features both singles and doubles tennis. This year’s U.S. Team was made up of two men and two women. In three of the four medal ceremonies at this year’s Games, the U.S. flag was raised and the Star Spangled Banner was played with a U.S. athlete wearing gold.
“It’s always a very good feeling to have an event like this where you’re not only playing for yourself, but for your country more importantly,” Rydberg said. “These events always mean a little more than winning a regular old tournament.”
Welch and Rydberg, who had previously won the singles gold medal and the doubles silver medal at the 2007 Parapan Am Games, defeated Argentina’s Gustavo Fernandez and Agustin Ledesma 6-2, 6-3 in the championship.
The win was a little redemption for Rydberg and Welch, who had fallen to the Argentinians individually in singles play at the Games.
“I think we were just playing better than we were when we had played them in singles a couple days previous to that,” Rydberg said. “Also, I think the more experience we had and knowledge of doubles strategy – hiding our weaknesses and exploiting their weaknesses – helped us out. They were much younger than we were.”
Prior to the finals, Rydberg and Welch defeated a duo from Colombia,6-2, 6-3, in the semifinals to reach the championship match.
Rydberg said the crowds at the matches were some of the biggest and liveliest he’s ever played in front of.
“I don’t know if they were just super interested in seeing us play or what, but there was a very good crowd there every single day, every single night, every single match,” he said. “They were buying the tickets to get in there. They obviously made it a priority to come to see this event.”
To qualify for the tournament for the US team, a player must be ranked as one of the top two players in the country. Rydberg, 34, peaked at No. 11 in the world in 2007 and competed in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics. In addition to capturing the singles gold medal at the 2007 Parapan Am Games, he won the doubles silver medal that year with Lee Hinson.
Rydberg has also played in three US Opens, is a two-time Paralympian (2004 and 2008) and is a 10-time United States Wheelchair World Cup team member. Before the last US Open, held in September of 2010, Rydberg was ranked 100th in the world according to the USTA rankings. His current ranking is 58th.
In addition to being a successful wheelchair tennis player, he is an accomplished wheelchair basketball player, earning a scholarship to play at the University of Texas-Arlington, where he helped lead the school to a national championship in 1997. Rydberg holds a degree in art from the University of Texas-Arlington.
Rydberg said he tried to soak in his experience at the Parapan Am Games in Mexico last week, because they aren’t the norm in his sport.
“I made it a point to talk to the younger people on our team who hadn’t experienced anything like this – with tons of fans, autographs and pictures – I made sure they kind of slowed their brains down and enjoyed the moment, because you never know when it’s going to happen again,” he said. “It’s not every tournament. It’s hit or miss depending. This was one of the best ones we’ve ever had. We were grateful for that.”
Roughly a year ago, Rydberg got back into competitive tennis, playing in the US Open. Since then, he’s kept busy in hope of regaining the form that had him ranked as the No. 1 wheelchair tennis player in the country in years past. The hard work paid off with Rydberg’s selection to the US Parapan men’s team.
Like the Olympics, the Parapan Am Games are held every four years, in the year immediately prior to the Paralympic Games. Gold medalists at the Parapan Am Games earn automatic bids to the Paralympics – but only in singles, not in doubles. So, Rydberg will need to earn enough points by May to move up the national rankings and win a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team and a trip to London in 2012.
“I’m right on the borderline right now,” Rydberg said. “I have a few months where I need to earn as many points as possible. As long as I’m playing well I’m not too worried about it.”
One thing could play a factor on how many matches Rydberg plays is his young child Atticus – who was born this past April while Rydberg was playing an international tournament in Pretoria, South Africa.
“I think if I really want to I could play enough,” he said. “We’ll see how much family and things like that figure into it. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it. I’ll be OK with that. It’d be disappointing if I played a bunch of tournaments and didn’t make it. But, it wouldn’t be a huge deal, because I know the reason and the reason is good enough for me.”