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Marika Vorosmarty-Blumerick, 71 Shelby Township, Michigan

While all Senior Games athletes strive to perform at their best, the reasons vary as to what motivates them. Some still have the burning desire to win and earn medals, while others seek to maintain health and vitality, to set goals, to measure and compete against themselves over time, or simply to enjoy participating in sport and the camaraderie found in The Games. In truth, the motivation is usually a combination of these and other factors.

Marika Vorosmarty-Blumerick’s motivations are remarkable because she approaches her game as a Deaf athlete competing in a hearing world.

In 1945, when she was 11 months old, Marika’s family sought to escape from the unrest in their home country of Hungary. A bomb exploded on a nearby bridge while the family was traveling on a ferry. The explosion deafened the infant. She was also subsequently diagnosed as "shell-shocked" from the experience. Doctors were able to cure the ailment through electroshock therapy, but her hearing remained lost.

Eventually, her family moved to Michigan through a church relocation service and the International Refugee Organization. Marika went to Michigan School for the Deaf (MSD) in Flint and learned American Sign Language. She found her community, and it was there she discovered how much she enjoyed and excelled at all kinds of sports with her peers. But communication barriers have been a constant in many aspects of her life, including sports. When she began competing outside of her own school, she was left at the starting line in a track race wondering how everyone else knew to begin- the start signal was a gunshot. Later, at Michigan State University, she won a match in a fencing tournament where she was the only female in the competition. A male competitor, angry about losing to a Deaf woman, intentionally poked her in the chest with his foil.

The embarrassing incident almost caused her to quit sports, but Marika used it as motivation to grow instead. She has fought to silence those who said she wasn't qualified or able in every aspect of her life. Sports at her school gave her a platform to succeed early, but she stepped off the field to focus on the priorities of career and raising three children until she could get back in the game later in her life. Professional credits are many, including being the first certified Deaf substance abuse counselor in the State of Michigan, a practice she held for over two decades; serving as a gubernatorial appointee to both the Michigan Board of Mental Health and the Division on Deafness; holding many past and present board positions in organizations of and for Deaf people, and she continues to be an American Sign Language instructor at Macomb Community College. She has also been an active volunteer with various charities, and has been a valued ambassador for Michigan Senior Olympics, which inducted her into their Hall of Fame in 2015.

In 1997, Marika won her first medal as a senior athlete. She set a goal to win 100 medals, not out of pure desire for the awards, but to make and fulfill a promise to her parents to honor them for their unfailing encouragement and inspiration to overcome any challenge in life. Once the goal was achieved at age 65, she immediately set a new goal to win 200. She has enjoyed a variety of sports, choosing to qualify and compete in Track and Field and Pickleball in recent National Senior Games appearances. She’s a fierce competitor, but the satisfaction comes from validating her inner sense of self-worth, and to demonstrate by her own example that anyone can succeed over obstacles and barriers in life if they put their mind to it.

Marika Vorosmarty-Blumerick has been an achiever for her entire life despite the challenges. To her thinking, she has been given much and feels it is imperative to give back and enjoy the gift of life with a smile. To our thinking, she has transformed the lack of a sense of hearing into a sense for success in life. That much is loud and clear.

Tell us what it was like to grow up as a Deaf person, Marika. I actually became deaf at the age of 11 months. My father was the chief economic advisor for the prime minister of Hungary during World War II. After fighting on the Russian front, and later refusing to cooperate with the German military, he knew we must flee the country to provide a better life for me and for my sisters. He knew that if we were captured, we would be killed by the Germans or by the Russians. But during the escape, I was exposed to a bomb blast that landed near a bridge and the ferry my family was on.

When the bomb went off, there were two siblings with me. They were fine, but because of my delicate infant ears I became deaf. My mother took me to many different doctors. They all told her there was no help for me. Then she found another doctor who said he might be able to help through electroshock treatment. It cured me from being shell-shocked, but I was still deaf.

At the age of six, I came to America where English was spoken. My parents spoke Hungarian, so communication was difficult for me. As a Deaf child I was taught American Sign Language. I developed an ability to speak even though I couldn’t hear the language. There is strong language acquisition ability in my family, and I also had that gift. Speech therapy in school really improved my skills. The Michigan School for the Deaf gave me a strong deaf identity, a beautiful language, and access to a critical education. The value of this experience shaped my life.

Also, I was fortunate to have parents who refused to see me as a poor little Deaf child. They treated me like my sisters and had high expectations of me. Since they refused to let my deafness be an obstacle, I too refused to ever let it define who I was or what I could do. To this day, even though I face discrimination, I will not let it deter me. I have always been a strong advocate at the forefront of the Deaf community, as a teacher and mentor.

I found an outlet and a way of expressing myself. While I always enjoyed playing games, I immersed myself in sports and enjoying a competitive challenge. Throughout my teen-age years, high school, college and after, I received various medals in karate, fencing, javelin and other sports.

What was the first sport you played competitively? When I was 14, I fell in love with Zorro on TV. I was absolutely enamored and wanted to marry him when I grew up. [Laugh] So I took up fencing, and found I was good at it. Later on, I found out the actor who played Zorro really couldn’t fence to save his life, and besides, he was already dead. {Laugh]

But back to fencing and sports. There were a lot of challenges. It was very difficult, but when I was at the Deaf school with people who knew me, it was a lot of fun. But when we went out, the hearing people didn’t understand our needs. When I fenced, I didn’t know when touches were occurring or not. But then they started using lights on the foil, so it would light up when you had a proper touch. It really leveled the playing field for me. There didn’t seem to be any more favoritism.

I found other challenges too. At Michigan State University, fencing was an all-male sport. One man lost to me and he became really angry. It was because I was young and a woman. I turned to walk away after the match, and he came right at me, stabbing me right in the chest with such force it broke his foil. It threw me completely backward. It scared me so badly I decided I didn’t want to play sports any more.

On second thought, I decided to later keep going because I'm not a quitter. But it was one of my life's most scary experiences.

As a young Deaf woman you faced multiple forms of bias and embarrassment in a public setting, no less. But you didn’t let it stop you. My parents always told me, “You can do anything you decide you want. But you have to fight for your rights." In my spare time, I travel abroad and have visited over 40 foreign countries. When I travel, I see women treated as second class citizens, or even third class. I think, “Oh no, you are not going to put me there. I refuse to play second fiddle.” I’m going to stand right out front and be involved.

So, your mindset is to compete against yourself more than against others? Basically, yes. I want to improve my own scores and go for my own goals. Having the other competitors there is part of the overall challenge, which is totally enjoyable. But I do mostly compete against myself. If I screw up, I screw up! If I play with a partner and screw up, then both people are affected. That’s why I like the independence in track and field.

How do you overcome not being able to hear what’s going on around you on the field of play – for example, when you have doubles play with partner? Right now, I have a partner from Belgium. It’s hard for me to lip-read her because of her accent, so we do a lot of miming! We figure out a way to make it work. There’s also a gentleman I play with, and it’s hard to lip-read him too. At best, only about 15 percent of English speaking can be read. It’s tough enough, but you know, I just pay attention and we get it done.

If there’s a schedule change, or an announcement is made, letting me know what’s going on is the kind of assistance I need. When I compete now with hearing people, they have been nice to me generally. The more people get to know me, the more help I’ve been getting. Sometimes, I do have an interpreter with me or someone to help at events.

I will tell you, when we play pickleball now, a lot of people will hold up their hands to show me the score. Part of that is because there are other older people who are hard of hearing there, and they enjoy having the visual score too. It’s been a positive thing for me to play with older people because they understand where I’m coming from.

Seems like sports have been central in your life since you were young. Actually, there was a time when I did stop playing sports after my schooling. That was when I was really focused on my family and involved with my kids growing up. I wanted my kids to know who their mother was. Wherever they went, so did I. I taught them to play sports, but my personal interest was not as important. But after they were raised and gone, I went back to sports and have been involved ever since. And they absolutely support me in it now.

Sadly, many people don’t go back to a favorite sport or try a new one in midlife; they decide it’s over for them. You and other senior athletes refute that notion. I think it’s just so important for people to keep themselves physically fit, to have good muscle tone, strong bones. Being active keeps yourself healthy. I’m very aware of health concerns and I want to remain active and healthy.

You are still so enthusiastic about your athletics. How do sports and doing Senior Games feed your soul? I like all the different competitions I do with all age groups. It doesn’t matter if they are younger than me or if they are faster with better muscles. I like the competition tough. I’m not saying the seniors don’t give me a challenge, but I don’t mind competing against a younger person. I want to play. I’m always active, crazy, on the go. That’s just my personality.

I am open to losing and being a good sport because it reminds my inner child that there is always room for improvement. To congratulate a challenger who has bested you with a smile is not easy for some to do, but for me, I smile inside because they deserve the accolades.

Some people compete in various sports or games because they have an inner burning to defeat their opponents or challengers; it is what drives them. I have, however, always felt a love for the challenge itself, to better myself emotionally and physically. I want to show everyone how teamwork can bring you joy, or selfishness can bring you defeat.

The really nice effect of continuing with these various sports and activities was the support from my family. My husband and children keep telling me to go for it and keep trying. How strange it is to see your children sign to you that they are proud of you and supported you through all your struggles and challenges! Inside, it feels good and often I wonder, who is the parent now? My inner soul is smiling.

You inspire others, to be sure. What has inspired and motivated you-a person in your life, a book or a favorite expression for example? For myself, it’s been my mother. She has been the motivating force in my life. She’s always told me I can do anything. It didn’t matter the frustrations I encountered. She kept me there, saying I can do it, and I found I could.

Several years ago, I set a goal for myself to reach 100 medals in total, and promised both my father and mother that I would strive for that goal. I’ve raised my goal to get 200 medals since I reached 100 when I was 65. I have a little over 150 now, so I have a long way to go. It’s important that I set goals to keep myself motivated to work towards them.

She instilled so much confidence in you. In a way, you are bringing her spirit forward to encourage others that they can do it too. Oh yeah, I’m always quite supportive of others. They say, “I can’t” or “I have a problem,” and I tell them, “Yes you can!” Now, to say I do it like my mom, I’m not so sure! She was a very ladylike woman from a noble family and definitely not the sports active type. Her encouragement came in a ladylike fashion, and I took it into the sports realm.

I try to teach my Deaf peers to grow, to play sports and feel good about themselves. I’m always trying to teach them by example to be involved. They tell me it’s difficult because of the communication barriers, but I encourage them all the same.

Last year you were inducted into the Michigan Senior Olympics Hall of Fame. What does that mean for you? It feels awesome, what can I say? We have some Deaf players, but never had one in the hall of fame. When they told me I would be in it, I thought “Wow, this is great!” I immediately called my mom and let her know this great thing was happening for me.

The Michigan Senior Olympics community has been very wonderful to me and I appreciate that. All of us older people truly can come together, because we don't have all the hangups of youth. I don't feel that judgment like I did as a Deaf child anymore amongst my sport family. To be not only nominated, but inducted, into the Hall of Fame will hopefully inspire some other little child out there who needs some inspiration.

I am so happy that the little child inside me still has that flame which burns with a competitive edge; it keeps my soul young and happy.

Greeley, Colorado
HUMANA Heroes: June 2016 Athlete of the Month

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Sunday, 20 May 2018
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