Break Point: Winning the Game - Orlando VA Healthcare System
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Orlando VA Healthcare System


Break Point: Winning the Game

40 years later and he returns to the courts like he never left.

40 years later and he returns to the courts like he never left.

By Andrea N. Madrazo
Monday, December 2, 2019

With the loss of his home on the line, and with less than 24 hours to spare, Mike McDowell, U.S. Navy Veteran, turned to the Orlando VA Medical Center Domiciliary for help.

The Domiciliary is an opportunity for Veterans to take control of their lives again. The treatment program motivates Veterans to achieve their optimal quality of life.

“I went to the Domiciliary and I went there with a purpose- To make my life better. The Domiciliary got me started in the right direction. It got me pointed to the places I need to go to get my life better,” says Mike.

One of those places is the local United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Campus in Lake Nona. With more than 40 years since he last stepped foot on a tennis court, Mike picked up a racket and to his surprise, he discovered he would return every Monday.

The USTA opens its doors every Monday evening to Veterans (Active and retired) to come out and play for free. Spread across the bright blue courts are Veterans from all ages and all with different conditions. Veterans compete and learn the game of tennis alongside professionals.

The weekly commitment and enthusiasm gleaming from Mike did not go unrecognized.

Mike, with a big grin says, “I was treated like a king. Just so happens I am a Veteran having fun and my passion showed. USTA gave me a brand-new tennis bag, brand-new racket, brand-new tennis shoes and a trip to the U.S. Open!”

Thanks to USTA, Mike hopped on a plane to Arthur Ashe Stadium. He not only watched the games in a suite, he played on the 23,771-seat stadium court alongside fellow Veterans. He says, “Hands down, one of the top moments of my life.”

As every week passes, his bond with USTA continues to grow. Sharing moments on and off the court, he refers to the USTA coaches as his “best friends.”

Jo Wallen, USTA Director of Adult Competition, did not hesitate to equip Mike with tennis gear. Jo and Mike went on a shopping spree to find tennis shoes made for Mike so that he could continue playing tennis.

“Mike came out to USTA and began playing tennis and was so passionate. His passion translated to the tennis court. He has been very supportive of us by getting other Veterans involved and helping us to be able to give back more. Gifting him brand-new tennis shoes are things that we can do to help. You see someone and you think that you can help them- That is what we do at USTA,” says Jo.

Pictured from Left to Right- Jason Harnett & Mike McDowell.

Pictured from Left to Right- Jason Harnett & Mike McDowell.

Tennis is the vehicle to establishing lifelong friendships among the players. Going beyond the game and building camaraderie has allowed Mike and many others to transform and grow.

Jason Harnett, USTA National Manager for Wheelchair Tennis and Head Coach for Team U.S.A. Paralympic Team, says, “When Mike came out, we saw a guy who was struggling. He was very guarded at first, but we saw through his pain. I think the consistency of us being here every week, and making him laugh and even hugging him and introducing him to a sport we all love so much has been a blessing in his life, as he has been in our lives. It has been life changing for him. He knows we are here for him every Monday and beyond that.”

The support from both the Domiciliary and USTA was beyond what Mike thought he would ever find in a time of need.

He says, “It is hard to explain how much better my life is after the Domiciliary than it was before. USTA was the cherry on the cake. What the Domiciliary and USTA have done for me is everything to me.”

Mike gained tennis skills not only as an athlete, but as a team player. Every game played, Mike knew he had another player on his side of the court supporting him. Beyond the courts he has found just that within the Domiciliary and USTA.


Join Mike and the many other Veterans from all branches of the military every Monday evening from 6:00 p.m.- 7:00 p.m. at the USTA National Campus, USTA Blvd, Orlando, FL 32827.


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