“Learning to raise two children is not an easy task, but it has filled me with many satisfactions.”
Juana Lopez has two passions in her life: her family and tennis. The Peru native started to fall in love with the game at just 7 years old, and that love sprouted into ambitions, dreams, and goals that led her to national and international wheelchair tennis tournaments. In the height of winning tournaments, Lopez was forced to take a break for nearly a decade to raise her children.
“After turning 25 I had other simultaneous objectives besides tennis: to fall in love, get married, and have children,” she says. “I achieved that, but I never imagined that within my plans I would have the luck of being chosen to be the mother of a child with special needs.”
Now residing in Gainesville, Lopez, who is affectionately known as JLO to some, focuses on taking care of her oldest son who is on the autism spectrum.
“When he was born, my husband and I would ask ‘what happened to our baby?’” she says. “After many doctors and evaluations, we had the answer: non-verbal autism.”
Lopez shares that her oldest son rarely speaks, has difficulty functioning and suffers from tonic-clonic seizures as well as tumors in his brain. She says the journey hasn’t been easy, but she doesn’t regret it in the slightest.
“My motherly responsibilities exceeded my passion of tennis,” she says. “The best reward is to hear him say ‘mom’ once a year.”
Tennis took a backseat for Lopez as she and her husband, a veteran of the United States Navy, funneled all their time and energy into caring for their son. While she had to give up participating in tournaments during this time in her life, Lopez still had the opportunity to get out onto the court every Saturday for a two-hour wheelchair tennis program.
“It helped me gain energy to continue through the next week,” she explains. “When I earned points in training games I felt my self-esteem grow; it was two hours that I was able to forget all the burdens of responsibility.”
When her eldest son turned 11 and could do more everyday actions independently, Lopez decided to make her return to wheelchair tennis tournaments.
“I started with many disadvantages,” she recalls. “The ranking players were mostly new, I was not chosen to play doubles, I even remember a tournament that I couldn’t play doubles because I lacked a partner.”
Lopez now practices at Play Tennis Gainesville’s Joyce Oransky Tennis Center. She says her return to the courts was tough as she balanced her job as a medical technologist at a hospital and the round-the-clock care for her son, but it’s a life experience she wouldn’t trade for the world.
“Being a mother to a child with special needs is a pleasure, and when you see them make progress due to your care, it’s comforting,” she says. “Tennis gives me the strength to keep going. It’s as if my life was a game of tennis – it doesn’t end until you win.”