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Benefield: Sonoma's Nancy Dito, 66, rediscovering her love of competition

There was a spell there when Nancy Dito didn't compete.

That's no small thing for a woman with Dito's athletic resume.

Dito, 66, who lives part-time in both Sonoma and San Francisco, said the aches and pains of nearly six decades of a sporting life had taken their toll.

'It was eight to 10 years where there wasn't really much going on,' she said. 'You are old, there wasn't really anything for you. I had aches and pains and I met bocce and life just opened up again.'

Dito found bocce and it's brought her back to competition. Dito and five teammates, the Sonoma Rolling Relics, will line up against other 50-and-over athletes for the 5th annual Wine Country games. More than 1,200 athletes are expected to compete locally in 18 events over 10 days starting June 4.

'I'm thankful to bocce because I'm still playing,' she said.

Seems Dito has been playing nearly all of her life.

'I had a dad who was very athletic and a mom who wasn't bad, too,' she said. 'He put a ball in my hand from three years old.'

In high school Dito tried, and excelled in, everything. Basketball, volleyball, softball, even ping pong. The only thing she didn't compete in was swimming and that was only because Mercy High School in San Francisco didn't have a pool.

At San Francisco State, Dito competed in basketball, softball and tennis. So strong was she in basketball that she caught the attention of Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli.

In a widely acknowledged publicity stunt in 1969, Mieuli drafted high school phenom Denise Long. The 13th round pick was voided, but Mieuli pressed on, establishing a women's hoops 'league' of four teams that played before the Warriors tipped off. Mieuli tapped Dito to play for one of the teams, the 49ers, and she soon became a top threat in the league.

'I was the third-leading scorer, which is a feat in itself if you have No. 2 on your team,' she said. 'I was picking up what you would call crap and making points.'

'We started having a following,' she said. 'I had little kids come up to me and ask for my autograph. It was cute, it was amazing.'

But the league folded after two seasons.

Mieuli, expecting or hoping that women's basketball would be named an Olympic sport for the 1972 games in Munich, helped form a U.S. team and again tapped Dito. But women's basketball wouldn't become an Olympic sport until four years later.

'It would have been a dream for anybody, absolutely,' she said of her missed opportunity to represent the U.S.

But Dito kept playing, at that point mostly for fun. Softball, tennis, whatever game was going.

And most basketball games she found were dominated by men.

'You could tell the men from the boys because if they were not secure in themselves, that's when they would hassle me,' she said. 'It was only the secure guy who would say, 'Nice shot.' It didn't matter that it came from a woman.'

Dito taught physical education in San Francisco for almost a decade and then worked for the city of San Francisco recreation and parks department, doing a little bit of everything, including umpiring little league and refereeing games that until then were usually officiated by men. But it was always related to sports.

And for that, she is thankful. Even if it did cost her her rotator cuff and meniscus.

'To talk to someone who is 66 and to not only play but also carve out a living in sports, is not usual,' she said.

So for Dito to find a new sport, a social sport, that lets her compete among friends is a gift that Dito cherishes. True to form, once Dito embraced bocce, she joined three leagues.

Even at 66, she's still serious about sports and competition.

'We are there definitely to have a good time, but that does not exclude being in it to win it,' she said.

A lot has changed in the sporting world in the last six decades, but some things remain the same.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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