By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Tilly Van Der Zwaard finished sixth in the 400m at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
© Jeff Bottari/USTA
Indian Wells, Calif.
- For many of the players competing in the USTA League presented by Chrysler National Championships this year, it is the first and potentially only time they will ever compete in a national championship.
But that is not the case for Tilly Van Der Zwaard.
As she competes this weekend in the 3.5 Senior championships in Indian Wells, Calif., it is indeed the 70-year-old’s first USTA national championship. However, Van Der Zwaard is one of the most accomplished athletes, if not the most, in the field.
Van Der Zwaard, originally from the Netherlands and now living in Edgewater, Fla., is a former running superstar and her career highlights include finishing sixth in the 400 meters in 53.2 seconds at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo at age 26.
She also competed at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and was supposed to run the 400 and 800 meters but unfortunately came down with the flu and was unable to perform at her best.
In 1962, at age 24, she won a bronze medal in the 400m at the European championships in Belgrade and numerous times was the Dutch national champion in the 200m, 400m and 800m.
But her training then was much different from elite runners today. Van Der Zwaard, from Aalsmeer, Netherlands, had a full-time job working in her father’s business. Aalsmeer is famous for having the largest flower auction facility in the world and Van Der Zwaard’s father’s business provided supplies for greenhouses.
Van Der Zwaard trained in the evenings, four times a week and just got better and better.
“It was an honor,” she said of competing in the Olympics. “There is no comparison today. I had a full-time job so I did it in my free time…I traveled all over Europe for competitions - all the Eastern European countries, England and Italy. I was going faster and faster so… I got more invitations to races. I had my injuries but I always came back.”
A late bloomer, Van Der Zwaard, who is representing the Florida section this weekend, did not start running until she was 21 after discovering a group (with only men) training inside of one of the buildings that held some of the flower auctions. She was hooked.
“I wanted to do sports. I went to a place where they were practicing handball,” she said. “At the same time, there was a group running. I said that’s it. I never saw the ball again.”
Van Der Zwaard started running races on weekends. She did not start practicing outside on a real track facility until she started training in Amsterdam, about 15 miles away from Aalsmeer, four times a week with a women’s group when she was 22.
In 1961, she received her first invitation to join the Dutch national team. And the rest is history.
“When you start to improve, you get noticed,” Van Der Zwaard said. “Then I started to travel but only on the weekends. I was still working full-time. (But) I stopped competing after Tokyo, I got married and I had a baby when I was 28. Then I started again and competed about five more years. Then I had enough.”
Having now lived in Florida for 30 years, Van Der Zwaard is thrilled to be back competing on the national level in tennis, another sport she loves.
“I still have my speed on the tennis court,” she said. “I feel so honored at my age that I could pack a suitcase to go to a national championship again.”
She first started playing tennis in her early 40s when she moved to Florida but really picked up the game when she retired at age 65.
“I moved five years ago to Edgewater from Winter Park and I joined a Recreational Tennis Club nearby and then I started to play team tennis locally,” she said. “Some of the women wanted to play USTA leagues and they asked me to join and that is how I am here.”
In fact this is just her second year playing in a USTA league and on the first day of competition in Indian Wells Friday, she won her opening doubles match with partner Carol Ogden.
“This is so amazing after so many years (to be here),” she said. “It’s been very nice. I love tennis and I think it is ideal for when you get older and it is a social thing. I hope I can do it for the rest of my life.”