Deb Smith is ready to go for the gold.

Plane ticket to Minneapolis? Check.

Nike high tops? Check.

Knee brace? Already packed.

Next week Smith, the coordinator of Maine Senior Women’s Basketball, will head to Minnesota for the National Senior Games. An estimated 12,000 athletes over the age of 50 will compete this year. Smith won’t be traveling alone. All 32 of her teammates and four coaches are going.

“We’ll see women there that we see every two years and if you saw us in the gym you’d think we were all best friends,” says Smith, 60, who schedules the group’s practices and oversees its fundraising efforts. “Put us between the lines (on the basketball court) and it’s not so happy because we’re really very competitive.”

In 2009 two of the teams in Maine Senior Women’s Basketball – there are six in all, based on various age divisions – brought home gold medals.

Lana Merchant, 56, who lives in Windham, was on one of those championship squads. Merchant joined the group after hearing about it from her family doctor, who was a member.

“I told her I am reasonably competitive,” Merchant says. “‘If it’s a bunch of ladies who don’t want to break a nail, don’t get me into it.’ And she said, ‘I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.'”

She was.

“I came one Wednesday and have been hooked ever since.”

Players range in age from 50 to 73. There’s a range in ability, too.

“We don’t turn people away,” says Smith, waiting for a practice game at Memorial Middle School in South Portland to get underway. “If you walked in here tonight and you’re 65 years old and you haven’t done anything for the last 10 years of your life, you’re gonna look and go, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I try to find a place and a way to give you some skills and get you hooked up with a group so you can play.”

Many of the women were avid players as teenagers who rediscovered the joy of competitive sports later in life.

That’s the path that Cyndi Meserve Bona, 59, of Scarborough followed – but with a detour that landed her smack in the middle of a media circus.

FORMER HEADLINE MAKER

In the fall of 1974, Bona, a former star on her Livermore Falls High School team, was a freshman majoring in fashion design at Pratt Institute in New York. Early in the semester she saw a sign in a dorm announcing a basketball meeting that evening.

“I walked in the room and saw just a sea of all males,” Bona says. “The coach is standing there, and he looks at me and he goes, ‘Oh, you must be here for cheerleaders.’ And I said, ‘No, I saw the sign for basketball. I want to play basketball.’ Of course his jaw drops and the guys are all giggling. And he said, ‘Seriously?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Pratt didn’t have a women’s basketball team so, in the name of equal opportunity, Bona was eventually allowed to try out for the men’s varsity squad.

“I wasn’t trying to make any statement,” she says. “I just wanted to play.”

She made the team and quickly made headlines around the world as the first woman to play on a men’s NCAA varsity team.

“The publicity for that first game was insane,” she says.

Bona appeared in Sports Illustrated and was featured on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” She played for a year and then decided to focus on her studies, leaving basketball behind.

In 2009, after decades off the court, she signed up for Maine Senior Women’s Basketball.

Being part of a team again, says Bona, is a gift.

“This has been great to find this again. I can’t even believe how it’s really a big part of my life now. It makes me happy. It really does.”

Rita Perron feels the same way. At 73, Perron, who lives in Hollis, is the oldest athlete in the group. She, too, played basketball when she was a kid but quit in 1959 and didn’t pick up a ball again for more than 40 years.

“It means the world to me (to be playing again),” Perron says. “It gives me a reason to believe I’m still vital. It gives me courage to believe I can still do things and stay healthy.”

Perron says when she travels to Minneapolis next week she’ll remind herself that winning isn’t everything, but if it happens, it will sure feel good.

“The real prize is I’m part of a team and we try to do our best,” Perron says. “But whenever we win I have tears in my eyes. It’s so exciting.”


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