When complications from a long history of medical issues caused Gordon Luedke to undergo a below-the-knee amputation at age 66, he thought his days of being physically active were over.
In the years leading up to his amputation, Luedke had been fairly sedentary due to health complications, and he viewed the amputation as something that would leave him more physically challenged.
“When I lost my leg I had just kind of said, ‘I’m done,’” Luedke told the Rivard Report. “I had a big, electronic recliner, and I said that was it for me.”
Luedke's mindset shifted when Mona Patel, founder and executive director of the San Antonio Amputee Foundation, paid him a visit and encouraged him to focus on the things he is still capable of, despite new physical limitations. The foundation's mission is to help amputees rebuild their lives through peer support, education, recreation, and financial assistance for home and car modifications and prosthetic limbs.
“When I connected with the [San Antonio Amputee Foundation], I met people my age who [had] lost both their legs, an arm, a hand – and they were out there working in the garden,” Luedke said. “I could see where I was selling myself a little short.”
Luedke is now a member of the Full Metal Racquets, an all-ages tennis team made up entirely of people who have had a limb amputated. They practice Thursday nights at the McFarlin Tennis Center at San Pedro Park, where volunteers from the San Antonio Tennis Association help players adapt to physical limitations resulting from their amputation or the capabilities of their prosthesis.
Roger Ojeda, programs director with the Tennis Association, is one of several volunteer coaches who helps guide players toward improving their skills on the court. He said that while coaches do address how players might adapt to the game based on their level of skill and ability, the players themselves do not consider themselves handicapped or less able to win a match than any other player out on the court.
“These guys are so intense, so motivated, it is hard to get them off the tennis courts,” Ojeda said. “It’s to say that they are enjoying something, but it’s also their self-esteem, what they are able to do.”
There are nearly 2 million people – or one in 190 Americans – living with limb loss in the United States, according to the Amputee Coalition, a nonprofit promoting education, support, and advocacy for people affected by limb loss. This number may double by 2050 if diabetes, cancer, and vascular diseases remain unchecked.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, limb loss is also associated with a myriad of other health problems, including anxiety and depression. The Amputee Coalition notes that peer support is often what provides the emotional support and encouragement needed to fully recover – both physically and mentally – from limb loss.
"Peer support is so invaluable because it's likeminded people coming together, understanding one another, inspiring one another, being role models, and lifting someone up," Patel said. "It helps to remind [amputees] that with a positive mindset you can be functioning as a normal human being."
Before his involvement with the San Antonio Amputee Foundation, Luedke said his interactions with amputees were limited to his childhood, when he helped care for an aunt who was bedridden due to her amputation. He said part of the joy he finds on the tennis team is being surrounded by people who have lived through a similar experience.
“I know I’m not going to Wimbledon, I’m not going to the U.S. Open,” Luedke said. “But I really enjoy getting out here with the guys because I am the only amputee I know.”
On the court, Luedke moves with slow but steady confidence as he reaches low to return with a firm backhand, the ball grazing the top of the net as it falls to the other side. Ojeda said that when Luedke first started playing he was lucky to hit one of 20 balls that came his way. Today, he rarely misses connecting with the ball on a return.
"As time has gone by, I can tell that I have improved," Luedke said. "Instead of just staying in one place and trying to reach out [for the ball], I move my body toward it, and I'm challenging myself each time I get out here to be a little bit better."
For many players on the team, tennis is an opportunity to be competitive and push their bodies to new limits.
Cory Torres lost a leg to cancer and now walks on his remaining leg with the help of forearm crutches. On the court, Torres can be seen switching both his racquet and crutch back and forth between hands, often choosing to take a tumble after a hit where he loses his balance.
“There is always a degree of adaptation [when you have an amputation] because you have to figure out new ways to do things that no longer work well,” Torres said, noting that falling is often the better adaptive option for him on the court than trying to prevent it. “I don’t really know how to do anything halfway, and [when I play] tennis sometimes that’s a bad thing, but sometimes it gets me to where I need to go.”
Patel said getting people out of their comfort zone is in itself empowering, but that physical activity can help amputees feel invincible.
"They leave these environments thinking, 'I not only made it through amputation, but I am playing tennis again,'" Patel said. "It gives them the opportunity to set their goals higher and higher and set the bar a little bit higher than where they are at."
The Full Metal Racquets are currently working on improving their skills to compete in the annual World Amputee Tennis Tournament, an adaptive sports competition sponsored by the national Tennis Advancement Program.
Ojeda said the team is so motivated to improve that the coaches often have to turn off all the lights on the court to get the players to call it quits come 9 p.m.
"If they could drive their cars up here and turn their headlights on, they would do it," Ojeda said. "It gives me great joy to see them."