Playing on a prosthetic leg, Lexi Antonenko has become a regular in Red River tennis lineup
Other than a pronounced limp, Lexi Antonenko looks like any other tennis player during warmups.
When the match is about to begin and the practice pants come off, however, that’s when her prosthetic left leg is revealed. And Antonenko has grown accustomed to the stares from spectators and opponents who are unfamiliar with her.
“I get some pretty crazy looks,” the Grand Forks Red River High School tennis player said. “The (spectators’) eyes sort of pop out. Adults see it and sort of stare. I’m used to it. But my friends see the reactions and they think it’s sort of funny.”
There’s nothing funny about the way Antonenko plays the game, however.
On the tradition-rich Roughriders team, which has won 167 consecutive duals and 12 consecutive state dual tournaments, Antonenko has earned her spot in the lineup.
The junior went 8-1 last season, playing primarily at No. 3 doubles. She’s off to a 3-1 start this season, the one setback in a No. 5 singles match.
Antonenko prefers to stand out based on performance, not the prosthetic leg.
The attention she sometimes draws “used to bug me,” Antonenko said. “Maybe I was more insecure. But now it doesn’t bother me, at all. I just don’t like being considered different.”
A birth defect
For Antonenko, the prosthetic leg isn’t different; it is all she has known.
The abnormality is a birth defect, a condition in which her left femur is very short. As a consequence, her left foot is where her knee should be. “Doctors say it was like a one-in-a-million chance,” Antonenko said.
Antonenko started wearing a prosthetic limb as a 9-month old. As a 6-year-old, she underwent an operation that basically reversed her left leg, a procedure that allows her left foot to act as a sort of knee for the prosthetic, giving the leg more mobility.
That hasn’t curtailed her from being active.
Antonenko was active in dance when she was younger. She swam legs on relays at the North Dakota Class A girls high school swim meet as a freshman and sophomore; she decided not to compete in the sport this school year because of its time commitments.
“My family has never considered me to be handicapped,” Antonenko said. “I don’t like to be treated differently than anyone else. If somebody says I can’t do something, I’ll go out of my way to prove that I can.
“I love being active. I’d be in sports even if I didn’t have my prosthetic. But I do have to work harder because of it. And that’s good. You feel so much better accomplishing something if you have to work harder for it.”
Antonenko does have limitations.
Running can be painful because of the stress on her back. Chasing the ball can be difficult. The side-to-side motion can be difficult. She says she prefers playing doubles because there is less court to cover. “But if you take the time to think it through, you can figure out ways to do things,” she said.
And there are occasional leg malfunctions.
The prosthetic leg is a steel shaft, approximately two feet in length. A shoe-like top fits onto her left foot and is strapped onto her leg. The foot is made of rubber. “There are rivets, bolts, straps, tons of things that can break,” she said. Sometimes, a shot of WD-40 is used to quiet a squeaky part or loosen a moving part.
The biggest mishap came on a skiing trip to New Hampshire when the metal rod snapped in half. “We had to take it to a local car repair shop to get it temporarily fixed until we could get back to my doctors,” she said.
Said Red River coach Greg LaDouceur: “You see sometimes that something has happened during matches. I’ll ask her what’s up and she’ll yell back, ‘I broke my leg.’ But she just keeps playing.”
If opponents see the prosthetic leg and anticipate an easy match, LaDouceur said, they’re in for a surprise.
“It is hard for Lexi to get down for low balls and chase shots down,” the Rider coach said. “But she has the talent to overcome it. She hits the ball very hard and has a good serve. On a lot of teams, she could be the No. 3 or No. 4 singles player.
“She never feels sorry for herself. Sometimes I’ll tell her when we’re doing our running that if she can’t do it, don’t. But there is no backing off with Lexi. It’s humbling to watch her, to see somebody with that challenge go out and play as well as she does.’’
The drive goes beyond the court. Antonenko says she doesn’t like to lose, whether it is in tennis, in the classroom or playing cards with her family.
Her goal is high — to become a doctor and maybe work at a Shrine hospital, for a group that has helped Antonenko meet challenges.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself,’’ Antonenko said. “I’m really proud of what I have done. To be on a team this good, it shows that I’ve worked hard. You aren’t handed a spot on Red River’s tennis team. There are so many good players. You have to earn it.
“I’d rather be known as just a good player. But I’m not ashamed of my leg. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool that I’ve gotten as far as I have with it.’’