Photo: Mark Wemple
"To the people who have a disability, I just want to say don’t feel bad about yourself. Find something you love to do, a sport you love, or find something you’re passionate about. Life is so much better when you’re doing something you love. I was lucky I found table tennis."
Florida Icon: Jenson Van Emburgh
Table tennis bronze medalist, 2020 Summer Paralympic Games; silver medalist, 2022 World Para Table Tennis Championships, Belleair Beach; age 22.
My injury happened during birth. I came out the wrong way. The doctor put too much pressure on my spinal cord and it severed. My parents were told that I had no sensation or motor function from my armpits down and that I would be in a wheelchair for life.
To the people who have a disability, I just want to say don’t feel bad about yourself. Find something you love to do, a sport you love, or find something you’re passionate about. Life is so much better when you’re doing something you love. I was lucky I found table tennis.
I’ll compete at the 2023 Parapan American Games in Chile. It’s like the regional qualifier for the Paris 2024 Summer Paralympic Games. My world ranking already qualifies me for Paris — I’m fourth in the world — but I want to win the Parapan American Games because it’s a major tournament, and all the best athletes from the Americas will be there.
One thing that I think Florida did really well was getting us back to our normal lives during COVID. Florida was one of the first states to open back up. Of course, COVID is a deadly virus, and I don’t want anyone to get it, but there has to be a point when you can start doing your business again and make a living. You just can’t be stuck in your house all the time.
One shot of mine that a lot of people are very surprised to see is my forehand smash. Whenever the ball comes to my forehand — it can be high; it could be low — I’m wanting to smash it. Every time I hit it, and it goes by my opponents, they get the same look on their face. They’re like, ‘What was that? How did that happen?’ It’s so satisfying.
My dad was a professional tennis player. He played on the tour for many, many years. He was in the top 200 in singles in the world. Then, he got an elbow injury, which forced him into doubles, and he was highly ranked in that, too. He got to the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 1990. My brother also plays tennis at a very high level. I still think about what could have been if I didn’t get injured, and if I would have been able to play doubles with my brother.
Handling things when you’re a kid is a little bit harder, so I would get upset and cry, but it made me stronger as a person, and I slowly got used to living this way. I had a physical therapist who was very helpful. She said, ‘Hey, you’re different, but we’re going to figure out how to get things done your own way.’
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. But when I tried tennis, I found it was very difficult for me with my disability. I tried basketball. It was very frustrating. I couldn’t shoot the ball high enough to reach the hoop. I tried sled hockey, and I tried track and field, but what really caught my attention and kept my attention was table tennis.
My dad told me that life isn’t going to be easy, and if you want to do something, you have to do it yourself and work hard. I’ve tried to do that. He raised me to be tough and thick-skinned, so I can go through the hard times in order to be able to reach the good times.
When I was 9, I was at a tennis tournament that my brother was in, and it was so hot out that I stayed inside and played table tennis with some of the other kids. By the end of the week, I was beating a lot of them, and I thought this could really be a sport for me.
My favorite tennis player is Rafael Nadal. He’s an inspiration. He has gone through so many injuries, but he always comes back. My dad knew one of his coaches, and Nadal was at the Miami Open, so we took a drive down there and got to meet him and talk to him. He sent me videos when I was going through a rough time after a spinal-fusion surgery. He would say, ‘Hello, Jenson. It’s Rafa. I know you’re very good at Ping-Pong, and I know you’re going to get through this. You’re a fighter.’ Those videos helped me a lot.
The most amazing part about sport is the competition. I always feel like I want to win more than my opponent. I hate losing so much! The feeling when you’re in a battle is amazing. It’s a little bit stressful and nerve-racking, but that’s what I love so much about competition. It’s all those mixed emotions and feelings that you’re getting out there.
I credit a lot of people for my success — my dad, my coaches — but my mom, of course, she’s my No. 1 supporter. She has been by my side throughout this whole journey, every step of the way. Every tournament that I go to, she goes with me.
Transportation for disabled people is very difficult. You shouldn’t have to call a company, for example, and hope a wheelchair-accessible car or van is available. That should be the norm.
I got lucky by getting a little bit of talent from my dad. He has really good hands and hand-eye coordination, so I got that from him. That helps me, but I also know that hard work beats talent.
Everything happens for a reason, and I’m thankful for everything I have. My life is amazing. Of course, there are some things I can’t do completely independently, but I wouldn’t trade my life.
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