Stronger than she was


Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Alexis Gordon returns a high shot durring doubles play against Miami in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament. Gordon and Julie Rotondi lost the match 8-4 to Miami's Megan Bradley and Melissa Applebaum.

BRYAN TUDEEN/ Special to The Sun

Facts

UF Women's Tennis

  • WHO: Central Florida (1-0)
    vs. No. 2 Florida (0-0)
  • WHEN: Today, 5 p.m.
  • WHERE: Ring Tennis Complex

  • It was another sticky late summer Gainesville day. Students were migrating back into town for a new academic year at the University of Florida. The Gators' women's tennis team was eagerly anticipating a new season. And Alexis Gordon was pregnant.
    Gordon was known for forcing opponents into a state of confusion on the tennis court. Now, it was her life which was in a state of disarray.
    Gordon made the decision to leave school and move home to Windsor, Conn., to live with her mother, Roxi Gordon.
    Her future filled with uncertainty, Gordon was absolute about two things: She would give birth to her daughter. And she would return to Florida no matter what. She would play tennis again as a Gator. She would earn her degree. She would somehow find a way.
    "I didn't know how it was going to get done," Gordon said. "I just knew I wanted to be back here in the end."
    A year-and-a-half later, she's back. With the support of her parents, teammates and a former Florida basketball player who fathered her child, Gordon has beaten the odds.
    "Alexis seems to be that type of individual," Roxi said. "She just overcomes and comes back stronger."
    Breaking the news Alexis Gordon was on top of the women's collegiate tennis world. On April 6, 2004 the Intercollegiate Tennis Associated rated Gordon the No. 1 singles player in the nation.
    Gordon and the Gators, however, would suffer a frustrating end to their season. Miami upset Florida 4-3 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on May 15 in Gainesville. Gordon went on to compete in the NCAA Singles Championships, falling in the round of 16.
    She played both tournaments while pregnant, but was unaware of this fact at the time.
    Gordon said she didn't find out she was pregnant until August 23, 2004. She met with head coach Roland Thornqvist and associate head coach Dave Balogh to inform them of the news and her decision to leave school. She then met with her teammates to inform them face-to-face.
    Thornqvist said his first reaction was for Gordon's well being.
    "I spent three years with Alexis," Thornqvist said. "I care for her a lot."
    Everybody did, including Gordon's teammates.
    "My initial reaction was about her having this child," said former teammate Jennifer Magley, then a sophomore. "There are options and she chose to give life."
    Struggling back home Gordon brought her life, and the new one forming inside her, back to Connecticut in September 2004.
    "At first it was (boring)," Gordon said. "I always couldn't stand being at home. It's always slow and there's nothing going on."
    Between doctor's visits, Gordon tried to fill the time by finding a job. She was repeatedly turned away.
    "Nobody would hire her because they knew she would leave soon to have a baby," Roxi said.
    Alexis decided to make the best of a difficult situation. She reaffirmed her faith and joined the nearby Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church. She helped make peace with herself by attending services each Sunday, something she never made time for in Gainesville.
    Alexis told her mother and father, Phil Gordon, who are divorced, that she wanted to be as independent as possible.
    "She said this was something she wanted to do herself," Roxi said. "She wanted to live her life differently."
    Gordon eventually found a part-time job delivering newspapers. Good thing. Her new paper route enabled her to maintain a competitive spirit.
    "She would see how many papers she could deliver in a certain time," Roxi said. "It was a competitive thing. She was basically pushing herself."
    Gordon maintains that the time she spent at her mother's house allowed her to reflect on her life and mature as a person.
    "At that time I needed to just get away because I had always been going and going and going since I had been (at Florida)," she said. "It was nice to be home. It was quiet. I could reflect on a lot of things."
    And think about a new child that was on the way.
    Imani Gordon is born Alexis had wondered in her final months of pregnancy what her daughter would look like. Would she resemble Alexis? Or would she resemble her father, Mario Boggan, the former Gator who has since transferred to Oklahoma State?
    Gordon would find out on Dec. 19, 2004 when she gave birth to Imani Kayla Gordon on a cold, Connecticut winter day.
    Alexis' life would never be the same again.
    "When I delivered her it was unbelievable," Gordon said. "There are not words to describe the feeling I had of holding this life that had been inside of me. It was unreal. The first time I heard her cry I thought, 'Oh my gosh. Everything has changed from here on out.' "
    Gordon says she remains in contact with Boggan. He visits during breaks from school and was able to join Gordon to celebrate Imani's first birthday last month during the Christmas break.
    "I would have to say we're basically trying to raise our child the best way we can under the circumstances," Gordon said. "We're trying to work together as a team to give her the best that she should have at this particular time."
    Out of respect for privacy, the family asked that Imani not be photographed for this story. Alexis, however, says her daughter resembles her 6-foot-7, 240-pound father.
    "She looks exactly like him except for the eyes," Gordon said. "She's a long, tall baby. Big hands. Big feet."
    Imani is the seventh day of Kwanzaa and means "faith." Alexis named her daughter because of this.
    It's a name with obvious significance to Alexis. She would need her faith to battle yet another obstacle.
    Return to the courts Alexis began plotting her return to Florida not long after giving birth. But getting back on the court would take time. Lots of it.
    Alexis first had to work off the weight gained from her pregnancy, then wait for the oppressive Connecticut winter to give way.
    She finally returned to the court and was hitting tennis balls by June. It had been almost a year and her body wasn't prepared for a simple, hour-long practice.
    "My shoulder felt like I had blown it out," Alexis said. "It was so weak. It felt awful."
    She was never one to complain. Alexis was suffering from mononucleosis during Florida's 2003 national championship run. Incidently, Gordon wasn't diagnosed with mono until after the tournament, according to Thornqvist, because she didn't know she was sick.
    This time Gordon felt the pain. "It was a weird state for me to be at," Alexis said. "The pain was unbelievable. It would start from the bottom of the arm and shoot up to my shoulder. It was awful. My serve was going so slow over the net. I was like, 'Wow. I've never been like this.' "
    But she kept at it, fueled by a foundation of strength and determination she had built over the past year. She kept hitting and lifting weights, day after day. She tried to be better and faster each day, just like on her paper route.
    By the first week of August the decision was made to return to Florida for her senior year.
    Alexis, though, would have to lean heavily on her mother to overcome her final obstacle - making the return to UF.
    Making a new life Roxi Gordon had spent the past 29 years living in Connecticut. She knew that would have to change in order for her daughter and granddaughter to make it in Gainesville.
    So Roxi made what Alexis would view as a major sacrifice. She left her job in real estate and moved to Gainesville to care for Alexis and Imani.
    They're the Gordon Girls - mother, daughter and granddaughter sharing a quiet two-bedroom, off-campus apartment.
    "She's sacrificed a lot," Alexis said of her mother. "But she doesn't look at it like that."
    No, she doesn't. "It was actually a divine providence so to speak," Roxi said. "I had made several visits while Alexis was in college had indicated to her I wanted to relocate down South. I enjoy the climate and it's a little bit more laid back. This particular pace suited my lifestyle."
    Roxi cares for Imani during the day while Alexis attends class and practice. The trio faced a major test a week-and-a-half ago when Alexis traveled to Indian Wells, Calif. to play in her first tournament as a Gator in two seasons. Roxi and Imani stayed behind. It was the first time Alexis had been separated from her daughter.
    "I did miss her but it felt nice because I didn't have the baggage," Alexis said. "I didn't have to bring the bottles and the juice and the cereal. I just took myself and went."
    When Alexis returned she faced another test. Her mom had grown sick, leaving her to do it all, if for a few days.
    "Alexis (last) weekend was able to get up, do her school work, do her laundry for the entire household, attend church service and go to practice," Roxi said. "She was able to do it all and wake up (Monday) morning with a smile on her face and ready to go."
    Alexis said her ordeal has forced her to mature.
    "This has allowed me to step back and analyze things a lot more instead of jumping into things and making quick decisions," she said. "Now I have to make decisions for another person."
    Gordon will play her first match at home in 20 months today when second-ranked Florida faces Central Florida at 5 p.m. at the Ring Tennis Complex. It will be a glorious moment for Alexis, and for her two biggest fans watching from the stands - Roxi and Imani.
    Roxi believes that her daughter would have remained a college drop-out and full-time mom if it wasn't for the sport she loves.
    "Without tennis," Roxi said, "she would be just another statistic."
    Instead, she's become an inspiration.A time of change 2004
  • APRIL 6: Alexis Gordon is ranked the No. 1 singles player in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
  • MAY: Gordon plays in the NCAA women's tennis tournament after becoming pregnant, unbeknownst to her or her coaches.
  • AUGUST: Gordon informs her coaches and teammates she is pregnant and will leave the team.
  • SEPTEMBER: Gordon moves home to Windsor, Conn.
  • DEC. 19: Gordon gives birth to her daughter, Imani Kayla Gordon.
    2005
  • JUNE: Gordon returns to the tennis court and begins practicing after almost a year off.
  • AUG. 3: The Gainesville Sun reports that Gordon will rejoin the Gators for her senior season.
  • OCT. 3: Coach Roland Thornqvist flies to Windsor to see Gordon for the first time in more than a year.
  • DECEMBER: Gordon, her mother and Imani move to Gainesville.
    2006
  • JAN. 15: Gordon returns to the court and wins the consolation singles title at the National Collegiate Tennis Classic in Indian Wells, Calif.
  • TODAY: Gordon will play her first home match since May 15, 2004.
    You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at zimmerb@gvillesun.com.
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