Tennis team hopes to ace competition with its unique freshman star by Jimmy Robertson

At first glance, she's your typical 18-year-old freshman, but it doesn't take long to realize that Jennifer Justine Larson--who goes by the nickname of J.J.--isn't typical. Larsen plays tennis for the Hokies, and she plays it very well.

She also plays it with only one arm.

"She's a unique case," Tech women's tennis coach Terry Ann Zawacki-Woods says. "To play at the level she does is unique and inspiring."

Larson was born without a left arm, and doctors never determined why. Yet, perhaps blessed with the innocence of youth, Larson--who received her first prosthesis at three months--grew up living life the way other kids did.

"I don't think much about [the prosthesis]," Larson says. "But I never used it as an excuse not to do something. I was a normal person growing up. I got into my fair share of trouble. The only difference is I didn't have an arm."

Her parents' healthy attitude about her artificial limb seems to have contributed to her own. Larson's father, determined to make sure his daughter lived life to the fullest, put a tennis racket in her right hand when she was nine and simply told her to start swinging. At the time, the gesture seemed awkward. But the moment turned out to be life altering for Larson, who fell in love with the sport.

Gradually, she figured out how to serve by putting the tennis ball between the thumb and forefinger of her prosthesis and tossing the ball in the air. Over time, she perfected the move.

J.J. Larson

Then her attention turned to her backhand. "It's hard to have a one-handed backhand," she admits. But she knew she needed to master it to be competitive since opponents will take advantage of a weakness. As with the serve, she mastered the backhand.

Early during her high school years in Orchard Park, N.Y., Larson began earning a reputation for her game. She gradually worked her way into the top 10 of the Eastern Section (a regional division), and by the end of her senior season, college coaches started taking notice.

One of those coaches was Zawacki-Woods, who put Larson's name at the top of her recruiting list.

"My dad told me that Virginia Tech was a good school and that maybe I ought to visit," Larson says. "I really liked Penn, but they couldn't give me a full scholarship and Virginia Tech could. Plus, I really liked it here."

Once Larson arrived in Blacksburg, she faced another hurdle--telling her teammates about her prosthesis. But her cheery disposition instantly won them over. Perhaps more importantly, her game won their respect.

That's really all Larson wants, and there's no doubt she'll earn it. In preseason workouts, her serve left visitors gaping, as the ball exploded off her racket, skimmed over the net by mere inches, and usually landed in the spot where she had taken dead aim.
"She's got a great serve and a great net game," Zawacki-Woods said. "She's going to have an immediate impact for us in both singles and doubles. She's a great player and she brings a bunch of positive energy to the team.

"She's really the perfect fit here at Tech."

Editor's note: Larson's clavicle was broken when she was struck by a car in February. She is expected to be sidelined by the injury until at least mid-April.

Jimmy Robertson is editor of hokiesports the newspaper.