Irma DeMarzo, 76, Jackson, New Jersey
Irma DeMarzo is the kind of person that embraces everything that she does, and especially when it comes to tennis. In her native Brooklyn, Irma displayed an innate competitiveness and physical aptitude in a variety of sports and was recognized as the top girl athlete in her high school. However, tennis was not available for her until after she married and moved to the small township of Jackson, New Jersey in 1972.
She had been enjoying handball and racquetball, but with no courts at the time in her new hometown, she picked up a tennis racquet and never looked back.
The remarkable aspect of Irma’s story is not about her prowess on the court, although she has been a respected and fierce opponent and has enjoyed regional success over nearly three decades. In 2006 she captained her Always Aces super senior team to a national title in United States Tennis Association competition, and has consistently racked up medals in New Jersey Senior Olympics. And last year in Cleveland, in her ninth try, Irma captured her first National Senior Games Gold Medals in both singles and doubles competition.
However, from the beginning tennis was a social connection for Irma and she desired to see more people to enjoy the game and its fitness benefits. It began with efforts to establish a local high school team, followed by organizing a “Jackson Day” tournament for adults in her community. She quickly became a valued USTA coordinator in the region and is credited with introducing senior and super senior tennis leagues into the shore area of New Jersey. The leagues have flourished to this day. She has also served as the tennis coordinator for the annual New Jersey Senior Olympics for more than a decade.
Irma DeMarzo has clearly inspired and influenced hundreds of people in New Jersey to get into the game and to continue competing as they age. She derives satisfaction from knowing she is helping others stay healthy. It is her own life example and dedication to show others the way to fun, fellowship and fitness that defines her Personal Best attitude.
Before getting into tennis, let’s talk about the level of fitness, positive energy and good health everyone admires about you. What do you credit that to?
I’m very, very lucky to be so healthy. I’m a dental hygienist, and my expertise is in periodontics. I am still practicing after 50 years and substitute when a dentist needs my expertise. My whole psychology on eating, taking care of your body, taking care of your mouth all went together with my education. If I had to go back, I think I would have become a nutritionist. I’m fascinated with healthy eating.
I think I became health conscious due to my husband John, who I met at 18 while in college. I didn’t eat as much green vegetables as I did after I got married. My background is Russian and John is Italian. My mother fell in love with my mother in law’s cooking and then she started cooking really healthy. She used to boil every vegetable that came along until she learned about olive oil and garlic. (Laughs)
There was a whole different culture that was introduced into our family and perhaps that kept me on a healthy track. My husband is a gourmet cook and bakes his own bread, cakes and pies. Oh yes, we make our own wine, too, and it’s really good. Maybe I can bribe you with a bottle for a Senior Games shirt! (Laughs)
More about food later. Let’s uncork your tennis history now. Has that always been your sport?
In my later years tennis became my sport. In my childhood years everything was my sport. I grew up in Brooklyn. My playground was a park or a street. I was the oldest of four children in my family. I was very competitive and was able to play a lot of sports and kept myself very healthy that way. I was a competitive swimmer and graduated as the Girl Athlete at my high school. Tennis didn’t exist there at that time.
Before moving to New Jersey in 1972, I was playing four wall handball and racquetball. At that time you couldn’t find either in Jackson, so I had to find a new sport, so about a year later I started learning how to play tennis. And I just kept going. I’ve also done swimming, skiing and bowling and I still swim a little, but they have gone by the wayside. The skiing was mostly while my kids were in high school. I went on all the trips because I was the parent that skied. We had a motor home at one time and would go skiing as a family up to the Berkshires and places like that. But when I got serious about tennis I didn’t want to take a chance I would break my leg.
Something we have also heard over and over is how much you’ve done to get other people involved in tennis. Are you a natural organizer?
I have always had an interest in civic things. I have always enjoyed giving my time and helping out in years past with my kids activities like Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and with my organizations such as the dental hygienist association.
When we moved to New Jersey about 30 years ago this town of Jackson was only 23,000 or so people. They were just starting to have more sports in the schools. I had already been introduced to tennis and I wanted to see tennis teams in the high school to compete against other schools. If you lived in the major areas all those high school sports existed, but in the small towns they didn’t. I was instrumental in getting tennis teams started in the Jackson school system. I actually did it for one of my sons, and he took up golf instead. (Laughs) There’s also an annual “Jackson Day” here with all kinds of activities and I started a Jackson Day tennis tournament and ran it for about ten years.
On top of that, for 15 years I was a USTA coordinator and I’m most proud that I brought a senior tennis program to Ocean County, Monmouth County and the surrounding Toms River area. As I was getting older I wanted to have more competitive people of my age to play. It has grown considerably. Through that organization I would say we have had 450 people in age groups 50 and up get involved. I was very, very happy to see that happen.
You’ve also been the Tennis Coordinator for the New Jersey Senior Olympics for many years.
This senior tennis gives me so much pleasure because of the ages, the thrill of seeing older people out there doing it. And I love being a part of it. Also, as my kids grew older tennis became as much a social thing for me as much as competition. And I’m very competitive!
I’ll tell you this, sometimes it’s just the little thank you’s from people at our Senior Olympics that mean a great deal. Hearing ‘Irma, we had such a great time” and ‘Thanks for letting us know about this’ really gives me a big kick. It feels good to help others.
So let’s focus back on your play. How’s your tennis game?
I was always competitive and the skill was there to keep learning. I’m not trying to tell you I’m a Number One player. I move pretty well and hit pretty well, and I often win on a local level. I also compete in the USTA tournaments. I’ll tell you though, when I play against a 40 year old and win, that gets me really excited.
But what I love so much about playing New Jersey Senior Olympics is that you are competing against people of the same age bracket. I’ve also been to nine National Senior Games, and this past year was the first time I won the Gold. I just compete for the love of competing, and I finally got good enough to win the singles. Then I won the doubles in the 75+ division with my partner Betty Helfrich.
I love playing doubles. I’ve been playing with Betty for 15 years and it was absolutely one of the great moments last year when we won and received our medals together. I already had one Bronze and one Silver from past Nationals, but getting the Gold was an incredible feeling. I have some family in Cleveland, so it was nice to have them come see that happen too.
What is so special about the National Senior Games that keeps you coming back every time?
I love all of the activities and especially the camaraderie I find there. I get to meet so many wonderful people. They’re celebrating health and life. It’s an amazing thing to go back to Nationals after 18 years and still meet some of the same people I met way back before.
Also, we like to travel. The Senior Games has taken us to nine places that we probably wouldn’t have gone. We usually go early and stay a little later and we go out to eat and sightsee with other athletes we now know as friends. Everywhere we’ve been, people have been nice. It’s been fabulous.
I’ll keep coming as long as I can step on the court. And if I can’t, maybe I’ll just go back to swimming! (Laughs)
You’ve stayed healthy all along. You must be counting your blessings.
I’m counting them, believe me. I’ve been very fortunate but I also do what it takes to be healthy.
Of course, tennis gives you a lot of exercise. What else do you do to keep fit?
I have a stationary bicycle in my basement with the arms that move as you pedal. I usually do that for at least a half an hour in the morning before going out for my day. And I also loosen up and stretch before I even get out of bed. I absolutely have to do this now in order to be able to keep those legs moving so I can go get that ball. I also lift some weights but it’s not as important as doing aerobic things.
What’s your nutrition routine?
I always eat a healthy breakfast, typically cereal with fruit like banana and blueberries, nuts and Greek yogurt. In fact, I noticed that Post Shredded Wheat is supporting National Senior Games and I swear that’s my favorite cereal. (Laughs)
My husband and I both like to cook. We’re leafy green eaters. Spinach, kale, broccoli rabe, dandelion, we cook all of those. We have about 2,500 square foot garden and grow a lot of them ourselves in the summer. We make a mean kohlrabi slaw; same ingredients but using that instead of cabbage.
Now I told you my husband is Italian and we do love Italian food. But there’s no more cooking a pound of pasta with a meal, more like four or five ounces. And we use a lot of vegetables.
We’re very big fish eaters. We also eat all kinds of meat, but not too much on the beef. We just don’t eat the huge amounts like we did as kids. Doing things in moderation is a good way to go. You don’t have to limit yourself and say ‘I’m never having this or that’ if you watch how much you eat.
When you go out to eat, do you have to watch out for the big portions many places bring out?
Oh yes. You look at the servings and it’s just…too…much…food. With that much food on the plate you have the tendency to eat it all just because it’s there. Now, when we go out we usually split one dinner. If it comes with a soup or salad I’ll order another one. And it’s not about the money saving anymore either. It’s just about eating healthier.
Since you’ve influenced so many others, we’re interested to know if anyone special has inspired you?
My husband John. He has been the force behind me every minute of my life. Besides being a great cook and musician, he’s been a mechanical engineer and a high school and college biology teacher. Even though he has no interest at all in sports, he encourages me to enjoy everything that I do. How do you like that? But it’s the truth. 54 years and it ain’t over yet baby. (Laughs)
Are there any last words of advice you have for others?
Keep enjoying life as much as you can. You only get one shot at it.