At the age of eleven, Ricardo Jorge, “Ricki”, was invited to play tennis with a competitive six player program in Lisbon, Portugal. He trained with other students who would become olympic athletes. At the age of eleven, Ricki also developed scoliosis.
Scoliosis is curvature of the spine. The curve of the spine is measured in degrees. After a 50-degree curve, surgery is recommended. It can cause pain and is common among adolescent children.
When Jorge started playing in the competitive program, he started experiencing back pain. He worked with some of the country’s top physical therapists, but remained undiagnosed for another two years.
“Even the guys I was working with didn’t notice anything, since it was around winter and I was wearing a shirt,” said Jorge. “I was kind of shy, so I was never taking my shirt off.”
Jorge and his parents went to the doctor to figure out what the problem was. The doctor did a scoliosis check and an x-ray and found a 14-degree curve. Jorge was asked to do physical therapy and come back in six months. When he did, his curve had grown to 20-something degrees. He was again, asked to keep up with physical therapy and come back in six months.
He started experiencing more injuries and pain, and when he came back to the doctor’s he was diagnosed with a 30-something degree curve. He changed physical therapists and did different treatments. When he was sixteen he learned his curve had grown to 40-something degrees.
His doctor recommended surgery and told him he could no longer play tennis.
Jorge was in total disbelief.
“That’s what I did my whole life,” said Jorge. “I even moved to Lisbon, by myself.”
Once the program found out about Jorge’s medical condition, they removed him from the program. His spot was replaced by a friend that he had gone to school with. Jorge was only allowed to practice with the six players two to three times a week.
“I was a little ashamed because it was a tough environment there, so competitive,” said Jorge. “Everyone was fifteen, sixteen, so there was a lot of jokes. I didn’t want to take my clothes off. I was always the last one in the locker room. I had a really bad year.”
His parents came to visit Jorge and saw what a hard time he was going through. They made him come back to his hometown of Tavira, Portugal for the summer.
He visited another doctor in Spain that gave him the option of wearing a brace or “vest.” The brace wouldn’t treat the curve, but it would hold it in place, preventing it from getting worse.
Jorge wore the brace 22 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I only took it off to eat,” said Jorge. “It took a solid two minutes to put back on. I had to do certain movements to put the brace on.”
He continued to play tennis in the restrictive brace. His parents said that Jorge’s perseverance made them feel less stressed.
“Every parent wants their kids to be perfect, so it was painful to watch our son going through some tough times,” said Jorge’s father, Jorge Jesus. “Ricardo never complained and was always a strong person, which motivated us to find the best medicine, doctors and treatments.”
Jorge’s father sent an email to, former professional tennis player, James Blake who also had scoliosis, asking him to work with his son.
Blake had just started a tennis club with three players and was transitioning from playing to coaching. Jorge said becoming a part of the club was the best decision he’s ever made.
“He helped me so much with the mental stuff,” said Jorge. “Helping me with stuff about being able to play with the vest, being able to go out with the vest, being able to take my shirt off. I would never take my shirt off at practice. Ever.”
His coach recognized his limitations in the brace and changed his game style. After losing matches, Jorge started to win. He was even able to play in a final tournament in Portugal.
He won his first set 6-4 and was up 3-1 in his second set, when the brace strap around his leg came off. When the vest strap came off his position was different.
“I started missing balls, my timing was off,” said Jorge.
His coach noticed that his game was off and told him to put re-adjust his brace. Jorge, in front of a thousand people, didn’t want to. He was too embarrassed to fix his brace in front of everybody. His coach told him again to put on the brace or he would do it himself. Jorge, in front of a thousand people, adjusted his brace.
“That was a turning point,” said Jorge. “I was like I’m going to play with this, I’m going to live with this and that’s fine.”
Jorge won the final tournament.
The summer after the big win his doctor told him he no longer needed the brace.
“I wanted to throw it in the trash, but my mom said we might need it later,” said Jorge.
Around this time, Jorge also started looking at colleges. He worked with an American international company that acts as an intermediate voice between colleges and European players. Jorge was friends with the president who knew John N. Palmer. Palmer donated the Ole Miss tennis courts. He was put in touch with Coach Chadwick and found himself at Ole Miss.
Jorge studies banking and finance at the University.
“My goal was to be a professional tennis player,” said Jorge. “When I realized I probably won’t be able to, I needed to focus on my studies.”
Ole Miss is the last place Jorge will be able to play competitively. His curve has grown to 62 degrees and he experiences major back pain and injuries. He is set to get the surgery after he graduates next December.
Jorge plans to get his masters at GeorgeTown or Ole Miss and volunteer as an assistant tennis coach.
This summer Jorge was featured on national television in Portugal talking about his journey with scoliosis. After first he was nervous, he had always been shy about his condition and his brace.
“Now that I was there, it was actually good,” said Jorge. “It actually helped others. I’m not only one. My mom told me to think about the parents that didn’t know anything about this. It’s our job to let them know what’s out there. It’s not a big deal.”
Jorge’s speech has influenced Portugal doctor’s to look into more ways to prevent and treat scoliosis.
He talked with one eleven-year-old boy that had just been diagnosed with scoliosis at the event. His parents were terrified. Jorge told them, “it’s not the end of the world.” Their son was happy to hear that he was still able to play.
Jorge’s father says that he is “a fantastic human being. He has a crooked spine, but a straight head!”
After Jorge’s surgery he will spend six months recovering and going through physical therapy. Two years after the surgery he will be able to play tennis socially. He plans to stay connected to tennis by coaching.