Shuttling Around The World – Debbie Lorenzo, 64, Las Vegas, Nevada
It’s only fitting that Debbie Lorenzo found herself settling into Las Vegas two decades ago. The previous years, beginning in her native Singapore, were full of action, surprises and excitement-and not all of it pleasant. She gambled on her life moves, scored on opportunities and overcame all manner of challenges. At every turn, a badminton racquet was never far from her reach for very long.
While naturally athletic, Debbie’s physical development was hindered by a severe four-year bout with asthma that nearly ended her life. Rebounding with the aid of traditional Chinese healing and a resolve to play sports again, she was then bullied due to her smaller stature. Undaunted, she regained her strength and became a successful multi-sport high school athlete, then earned a position on both Singapore’s national junior and senior teams and benefited from training by a legend of the sport, the late Wong Peng Soon.
Debbie’s view was world-embracing, and she went to work for a French-based international company that offered her a one year work and cultural exchange opportunity in Paris, which she eagerly accepted. Once there, she passed tests to enter into international civil service with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and a series of European assignments followed. She also took advantage of summer vacation breaks to attend badminton camps and competitions around the continent. She also picked up the ability to speak a dozen languages from her life experiences.
In 1995, due to heightened security in the former Yugoslavia, Debbie’s position there was dissolved and she was ordered to evacuate. With virtually no possessions or any place left to live in Singapore, the only haven was to come to Las Vegas to live with her mother and step-father. Finding work and her own living arrangements took time, and she even had to wait to be able to afford a racquet to return to her beloved badminton, but once back on court she excelled. She was excited to hear about the Nevada Senior Games but had to wait five years to turn 50 to compete. She hasn’t missed one since, and has medaled at every National Senior Games since her first in 2007, including two golds and a silver from the 2015 National Senior Games presented by Humana. Her “aha moment” came in 2009, when she traveled to the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia and returned to Las Vegas with two gold medals for singles and mixed doubles, and a bronze medal for the A Division team event.
The social aspect of her sport participation is as important as the competition, and she is grateful for The Games and has been a volunteer for Nevada Senior Games for five years. She is also a passionate advocate for senior fitness and her advice is simple: If she can do it, anyone can do it. Doing whatever you can, as best as you can, for as long as you can is exactly what Personal Best is all about.
Curiosity begs this first question: Both of your parents are of Chinese descent. How did you get the name Debbie Lorenzo?
Ohh. That’s from my ex-husband. He’s American-Italian. (Laughs) I was baptized into the Catholic faith so I chose the name Deborah. My friends and people in the badminton world know me as Debbie.
OK, that would be consistent with people describing you are something of a world citizen.
I speak about a dozen languages. I was born in Singapore, which is a cosmopolitan country. In elementary school I was with girls from other ethnic groups so you just pick it up as you go along. I spoke Malay and it has similarities with Indonesian. My father was a well known Mandarin scholar and my grandmother was one of the early immigrants from China and did not speak a word of English. When I started working, I was with an American export company who had business interests in the French Congo, so I learned French. From there, I was able to work for a company based in France and they had a professional and cultural exchange program where I could work in Paris for one year. So I went to Paris and during my year I took some tests to do civil service work for the United Nations system, which I passed.
While working for UNESCO in Paris I needed major surgery on my feet. They had to break some bones to fix it- it was pretty gory. I was given three months to convalesce so I went to Austria and took a one-month crash course in German at the University of Vienna. I then applied for a transfer and went to work at the U.N. office in Vienna. After the outbreak of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, I volunteered to go to the Balkans and learned how they spoke. So it was from my physical presence in these countries that I mostly learned the languages, although I did start learning French in Singapore. Oh yes, I also know American Sign Language, which I went to school to learn here in Las Vegas in 2008.
That sounds like an interesting and successful career. You’ve also been very successful playing bad minton.
Badminton is widely played in Southeast Asia. I started at a very early age, maybe 5 years old. I was no taller than the racquet itself! The racquets in those days were half wood and half metal, very big and heavy. There was a fence between houses where I lived and I would hit the plastic birdie back and forth with my neighbor, who was about 12. He was using one hand and I had to use two. (Laughs) So that was how it started.
In the school system they promote all kinds of sports like basketball, volleyball, table tennis, lawn hockey, athletics, and badminton. I had tried volleyball, but most of the girls were taller and I would get pushed down and always came home with cuts and bruises. Basketball didn’t go too well because I always shot the ball under the net due to my height. (Laughs) I did very well at track and field. Maybe being smaller made me faster.
Badminton was my favorite. There were leagues sponsored by soft drink companies and before I left high school a talent scout got me an endorsement and induced me to play on a team. They got me to try out for the junior national badminton team and I was successful. I trained with the national team and played some tournaments before it was time to decide on my career.
So you found your best sport without too much trouble.
Actually, no. When I was eight my uncle came to live with us after his house was inundated by floods. He had three cats, and I actually contracted asthma from breathing in tons of cat hair. My physical education teacher noticed I was slowing down, especially in the 400 and 800 meter runs. I would stop every so often and had difficulty breathing, and I heard a wheezing noise and started to tense.
It got to the point where I had to be propped up with pillows and sleep at a 90 degree angle for almost four years. I never grew another inch during that time, and I got pushed around and bullied because I was smaller than the other girls my age. It affected my grades. What was heart wrenching for me was that I was required to go to PE, but after starting to run I would bend over and start wheezing, panting and coughing. I actually would turn olive green. I was ordered to just sit down on the bench while all the other girls were running around and having fun.
My brothers and sisters would get anything they wanted to eat, but my daily meals consisted of medications in the form of colored syrups and pills and a strict diet of congee, which is a rice porridge. I also had to go to the emergency ward for periodic injections every time I had a breakout. In those days the syringe was so big! I became very thin and weak. At one point I didn’t have the strength to do anything and was almost giving up on life. I was virtually on my death bed.
Wow. How did you overcome it?
My grandma was from the old school of Chinese healing and I was not allowed to have any cold drinks – no ice or refrigerated things, only hot, lukewarm or room temperature liquids. She wanted to keep my body temperature constant. Air conditioning was taboo, so I would take double sweaters when we went to the movies. (Laughs) One day while going to the local market with her, we came across a street vendor who recommended a small bottle of herbal medication which was good for pulmonary diseases. It only cost one Singapore dollar, but that was all it took to start improving my breathing and reviving me. So all of these things which I call the wisdom of the ages contributed to my wellness.
I started to run again and little by little, and with support and encouragement of my family, I was taking in more fresh air and opening my airway. So by persevering I kept improving. I’m totally asthma free now.
I started back doing all kinds of sports when I was about 12. I even took up volleyball again, the very thing that I hated. And I picked up the badminton racquet again. But I was so far behind. My brothers and sisters had all kinds of trophies from their sports and my dad had a display cabinet to show them off. I cried because I had just one tiny one before I got sick, and then no more trophies for me. But my mother and grandma encouraged me and said one day I would have more trophies than them. And you know what? That came about. My trophies outgrew the collection and my father had to get a bigger cabinet to display them. (Laughs)
So did you go to college and stay with sports?
Right after high school it was career time and I went to work and couldn’t do as much. Then I went to Europe and badminton was not widely played in France in the early 70s. But I found a club and got to play some. Then when I moved to new assignments I would train and play tournaments off and on when I could. During the summer vacations there were badminton camps around Europe and I took advantage of them for the training.
|2015 Medal Ceremony (Glen Stubbe-Star Tribune)
How did you end up coming to the United States?
As I said, I had the opportunity to travel around Europe doing office and field logistics work. But things got bad and I had to suddenly evacuate my duty station because heightened security in the former Yugoslavia. I did not have a place to live back in Singapore, so the only option for me was to come to the United States, to Las Vegas, to be with my mother and step dad.
I arrived here in 1995 at age 44. Because of the evacuation I didn’t have any equipment. I didn’t have anything! I had to wait for my work permit, so it was very difficult to get going at first. The need to find work and affordable housing took precedence over my badminton. But after awhile, my step father told me there was badminton going on at one of the recreation centers, so I started doing it again off and on. It was there I found out about Nevada Senior Games and National Senior Games-but I was too young to play.
After five years I reached 50 and said “Yay! I can finally do this!” I was so excited. I wanted to go to the Nationals in Pittsburgh in 2005 but I was working variable shifts at a casino so it was difficult to train and to get the time to go. And there were no real badminton clubs around town then. I did go to Louisville in 2007 and won two golds and a bronze. I have been to every one since.
I was also able to go to the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia in 2009 and won three medals. I made it to Nationals in Houston in 2011, but missed out on going to Turin Italy for the world games because I had to cut down on badminton to care for my senior mom. But whenever I could pick up my racquet I would go play. Luckily, Mr. Don Bolwaire came to the Valley and set up many badminton programs. He coordinates badminton for the Nevada games every year, together with Nedra Paschal. And the Las Vegas Badminton Club came into existence about four years ago, which is another major contributor to my success. I would not be able to train and play at my best without them. I’ve worked as a volunteer for the Nevada Senior Games for about five years. I’m grateful that they provide seniors with multi-sports opportunities that enhance the quality of their entire lives.
That’s the benefits sports offers – it provides fitness, fun and fellowship.
I am fortunate to have friends who enjoy playing badminton. Some of the people I play with are half my age but I don’t care. We challenge each other on the court, and win or lose it doesn’t matter. It’s all about keeping fit, working up a good sweat and have a fun game.
It’s the same with Nationals. Whether I come home or not with a medal, what is important is to maintain a quality life. How can you have a quality life if you are not fit? There’s also the camaraderie. I get to see my friends every two years and see how everyone is doing. And I get to go to a part of the United States I have never been before. It’s so rewarding. It was the same when I was in Europe. I participated in tournaments and got to see new places and faces through my sports.
How do you tell others about the importance of staying active, even if not in sports?
It is a major contributor to keeping fit and staying away from doctors. Whatever you can do is beneficial. We all have a choice. You can choose to be a couch potato or be active. You either want to get off your butt-pardon my French-or you want to do something about it. What is it going to be for you? Excuses are excuses.
When I was so sick and almost died, I didn’t think at the time that I would live to be 64 years old. I look around now at men and women that are my age and I feel so bad for them. They have illnesses, some of course are no fault of theirs, but many bring them on themselves. I choose to have a good quality of life. I have to watch what I eat and have a balanced diet. Naturally, daily dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals are also major contributors. To me, the most rewarding thing is that I don’t have to depend on anyone to do things for me.
Everything in life is about doing things in moderation. Have some fun. Go out to the casino and have some fun, you know, but do the other things that keep you in shape. I really want to encourage anyone my age who might feel like they can’t do it, I want to tell them it’s not about being old and dying. It has to do with how we choose to live. Sharpen your wits, sweat a little bit.
You spoke of your mother and grandmother inspiring you. Who or what is else has inspired you?
I am inspired by badminton because it is a fascinating sport. It requires focus, concentration, discipline, and strategy. And believe it or not, mathematical and rhythmic coordination similar to dance is also involved. I love it.
My favorite sports slogan is “Just Do It.” To this day I keep telling myself that. And I can really relate to the movie Forrest Gump. Tom Hank’s character had polio and ran until his braces fell off. I ran until my asthma went away. If I can do it, anyone can.