Francisca Mardones spins and whirls across the tennis court, pouncing on balls fired across the net at her.
Her nimble reaction — along with a pair of icy blue eyes and a habit of wearing all black in competition — have earned her the nickname the Panther. Next week, the Panther will prowl the courts at Eton Manor, where she'll compete in singles and doubles wheelchair tennis at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She enters the competition, which starts Saturday, ranked No. 25 in the world.
Today, she's fielding lobs from Fernando Velasco, owner and manager of the Grey Rock Tennis Club in Austin, who keeps up a steady banter in a combination of English and Spanish.
"Slice it up!" he hollers to Mardones, a native of Chile. "You should have given that one a second bounce. Get settled. There you go, nice. Go get it! Go get it! That's a great shot."
Mardones grunts with effort.
The only difference between regular tennis and the wheelchair version is that the ball can bounce twice. Not that Mardones, who swings the racquet with her left hand and uses both arms to turn the wheels of her specially designed chair, uses that advantage. She nabs most shots after a single bounce.
It's taken seven years of practice and determination to get this good. "As a child when I saw the Olympic Games I said, ‘I want to be there one day,' " says Mardones, 34, who grew up in Santiago.
But Mardones was injured in 1999, while working as a hotel manager in the Virgin Islands. Hurricane Lenny was bearing down, and she hustled to make sure the guests were safe in a bunker. A landslide swept her off her feet and over a cliff as she was making one final sweep of the property. She fell hard, breaking her back and damaging — but not severing — her spinal cord. She crawled to a nearby shelter, where she lay in pain for two days until rescuers found her.
After she was stabilized, she returned to Chile, where doctors inserted a titanium rod. She had complications, though, and another round of surgeries soon followed. She spent a year in the hospital. When doctors decided they couldn't help anymore, they sent her home, addicted to morphine and miserable.
Months later, a doctor who had heard about her case tracked her down. He wanted to help. He got her off the painkillers, and she went into withdrawal.
She began four years of physical rehabilitation and started to learn to live with chronic pain, using her mind instead of drugs to overcome it.
"I had two options," Mardones says. "I could complain and be sad for myself, or I could fight to be better. And I took that option."
She struggled to stand again. Then, over months, she learned to walk, first with a walker, then with a crutch. Today, she can walk short, painful distances with a cane. A wheelchair is easier, but she doesn't want her leg muscles to atrophy.
"The pain is now my friend, because I live with it 24/7," she says. "If it's my enemy, I live with war every day. It's a part of my life now, and that's not a bad thing."
She still feels pain from her waist to her toes. Her thighs burn as if someone is pressing a hot iron to them. Her bones ache. Some parts are numb, while others feel like they're being zapped with electric current.
Playing tennis helps her forget.
She started playing one day after rehab when a woman invited her to try. At first, Mardones thought she was talking to someone else. "When I had the accident, the first thing I thought was, ‘I can't do sports again.' So when she asked me if I wanted to play, it was ‘Whoa!' " Mardones says.
The next day Mardones was in a chair on a tennis court, holding a racquet. "I thought, I can make my dream come true," she says.
Soon she was practicing on the court alone, hitting balls over the net, then wheeling herself to the other side to hit them back.
"I knew what I wanted to do. I needed a plan, and a sponsor," she says. Eventually, CCU, a Chilean beer company, agreed to sponsor her.
She began traveling to tournaments. Within a year, she'd climbed into the top 100 of wheelchair tennis rankings. She began teaching others to play and earned a living through motivational speaking.
She's nimble and powerful on the court, and has traveled from Africa to Japan and Korea for tournaments. Her forehand is her strength. "Other players can't hit it back," she says.
In June, while visiting a friend in Austin, she got word she'd made the Chilean Paralympic team. She needed a place to practice and found Grey Rock Tennis Club. "I love her attitude, her smile and her hard work," says Velasco, the club owner. "I love the way she moves on the court."
"I feel free, that's the perfect word," Mardones says. "When I try to walk with the cane I feel like, argh, I always have to concentrate not to fall down. On the court, in a tennis wheelchair, I have the same feeling I had when I was 5 years old and won a bike race. It's like my spirit is flowing on the court."
She says she's not nervous about competing in London. Since she's not ranked in the top 10, she feels no pressure. "I really want to play the best I can. And I know I can surprise."
After London, she'll compete in Hilton Head, S.C., then at the U.S. Open in St. Louis. Then, in January, she'll move back to Austin, where she will work with Velasco to start a wheelchair tennis school.
"I say thanks to God because I am so happy now," she says. "I think I am a really lucky person. Not everyone has the opportunity to make a dream come true. ... Now I understand what happened to me — it's my destiny."
Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994. Twitter: @fitcityleblanc