As usual, no limits for Rydberg
For a man who has overcome obstacles his entire life, starting a tennis program from scratch shouldn't be much of a problem.
Jon Rydberg, originally of Pine City and now living in Oakdale, has been chosen as the first girls tennis coach at East Ridge High School, which will open next fall.
Rydberg, 30, was injured in a freak accident when he was 13 months old and is now in a wheelchair. He is thought to be the first head coach of a non-adapted varsity high school team in Minnesota who is in a wheelchair.
However, Rydberg doesn't foresee any limitations in leading the Raptors.
"I've climbed the Great Wall of China," Rydberg said. "If I can do that, I know I can coach tennis. I've done pretty much everything that I can think of that I've ever wanted to do. It's tennis. I've been on the tennis court a million times. It won't be an issue for me to do anything that's needed."
Rydberg has previously been ranked as the No. 1 wheelchair tennis player in the United States, is a two-time Paralympian (2004 and 2008) and an eight-time United States Wheelchair World Cup team member. Rydberg was also the captain of his high school tennis team in Pine City during his senior year.
"I hope my story is an inspiration for other physically challenged people to get out there and play tennis, but to know that they can do whatever what they want to do," Rydberg said. "It's just as easy for me to coach a high school team as it is for an able-bodied person."
Rydberg's life changed before he knew it
Rydberg was injured when the family pickup truck rolled on top of him when he was just over a year old. However, he said he was lucky that it happened when he was so young, because he never knew himself to not be physically challenged.
He began playing tennis at age 11 with a racquet welded onto one of his crutches. However, at age 15, although the United States Tennis Association rules at the time relegated he only play in exhibition matches, Rydberg began playing tennis for Pine City High School in a wheelchair and has done so ever since.
"I heard there was a wheelchair tennis tour and that I could compete and travel, so I convinced my parents to get me a wheelchair," Rydberg said. "On my crutches I was doing pretty well, but when I first got my chair I had to learn a whole new style of tennis and I got my butt kicked. I knew it was a work in progress though. It just took a little time."
Rydberg, who also began playing basketball in eighth grade, earned a full scholarship to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Texas-Arlington. In 1997 his team won the national championship. However, after graduation, Rydberg shifted his full attention to the game of tennis.
After achieving a ranking of 11th in the world and earning a spot on the 2004 United States Paralympic Tennis Team that competed in Athens, Greece, Rydberg left the game and returned to basketball, playing with the Minnesota Rolling Timberwolves. It didn't take long for him to make an immediate impact on the hardwood as he earned a chance to play against many of the world's best players in the All-Star Wheelchair Classic during the 2006 NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston, Tex.
After taking almost a full year off from tennis to play basketball, Rydberg returned to the tennis court late in 2007 and quickly regained his position amongst the world's elite players. Prior to traveling to Beijing, China for the 2008 Paralympics, Rydberg was ranked No. 1 in the United States and 12th in the world. He was one of eight players worldwide invited to play in the U.S. Open Wheelchair tournament in Flushing, N.Y. in 2007, and traveled the world over as part of the international wheelchair tennis tour.
Rydberg foresees himself continuing to play a role with the U.S. Paraylmpic Tennis Team and hasn't ruled out trying to make a run at London in 2012, as long as his involvement won't interfere with his program at East Ridge.
First coaching job came sooner than expected
Although his job at East Ridge will be his first head coaching position, Rydberg has had coaching experience at many tennis clinics and recreation programs as well as coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves-affiliated wheelchair basketball team.
"East Ridge is a pretty unique opportunity to basically lay the groundwork for generations to come," Rydberg said. "Luckily I know a lot of people who were able to help me out and have given me a lot of ideas on what will work the best and what doesn't work."
Two of Rydberg's sounding boards have been Steve Paulson -- the head coach of the 26-time state champion girls tennis team at Edina High School -- and Jim Mason, who is an assistant coach at Chaska High School.
"I'm not going to be too worried about our match record this season, because we're going to be feeling each other out yet," Rydberg said. "The players are going to be learning about how I coach and what I do. Through time they'll know what to expect every day. The same goes for me. I need to learn about them. They'll learn a lot. Every day if they show improvement and learn something on the court or off the court I'll be happy."
Two current Park sophomore tennis players who will be attending East Ridge in the fall of '09 -- Sarah Kostelecky and Neuchee Chang -- were a part of the committee that helped choose Rydberg as coach.
Both girls were extremely behind bringing Rydberg on board.
Kostelecky said what helped separate Rydberg from the pack was his personality and the fact that he is a world-class tennis player.
"He was very nice, he was professional and he was upbeat," Kostelecky said. "I wanted to choose a coach that was going to get down to business and who was understanding and who would help me improve my game."
Kraft said Rydberg knows how to play and teach the game of tennis, loves to compete and has fun doing it and that he will teach the young women at East Ridge to do the same, as well as to overcome the challenges that they will undoubtedly experience in life.
"Jon is extremely qualified to coach tennis," Kraft said. "He knows the sport of tennis. Whether you're sitting in a wheelchair or standing up, the tennis motion and the way you teach it is the same. Beyond that, he's an inspiration to all of us. At the end of the day we're all faced with challenges. If you take on those challenges with drive, determination and a passion to succeed you're going to be able to get through everything. I think Jon has proven that it's not about the hand you're dealt in life, it's how you play it."
Summer program first thing on agenda
Rydberg recently met a handful of his future pupils at the East Ridge High School coaches meet and greet at Lake Junior High in Woodbury on Wednesday, Jan. 28.
He is currently organizing a summer program through community education -- which will run from the first part of June through the first week of August -- where tennis players from all over the community will get a chance to work with Rydberg. Details aren't concrete, however, Rydberg is hoping to hold the summer clinics at East Ridge. Rydberg said updates on the summer program will be available on the community education Web site.
"I hope we get tons of players, that's my main priority right now," Rydberg said. "I know we're down on numbers at the high school already because we won't have any seniors. This summer program will be vital for our high school program. Hopefully, it's a good recruitment tool for East Ridge. But, it's a long process and we'll have to hope it will just grow and grow and grow."
Rydberg was inspired to become a head coach by a former wheelchair tennis player named Paul Walker, who is now coaching a high school team in Florida.
"I knew I couldn't play forever at the level I was accustomed to," Rydberg said. "I think coaching has always been in the back of my mind and I knew the day would come. I didn't know that it would come this soon. But this is the perfect opportunity for me at East Ridge."
One philosophy Rydberg will attempt to instill in his players is overcoming the challenges they will face on a day-to-day basis, both on the court and off the court.
"I hate to say it, but it doesn't matter who you are, something bad is going to happen to everyone," Rydberg said. "How you deal with those things is how you're going to learn. I've been fortunate to have some great coaches in my lifetime in tennis and basketball and they've showed me the right way to do things. I want all the players to be the best tennis players they can be and to work hard on the court, but I also want them to succeed off the court, because that's going to be more important."