Mary Lou DiNicola is No. 7 on the list of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century in Berkshire County
That's because DiNicola, who started her career in 1950 at age 10 is still skating at age 77. And still winning championships in her age bracket.
"I never thought about winning or medals much," she admitted in an recent interview at her home. "I just loved doing it. I love skating."
DiNicola's winning history as a speed skater makes her No. 7 on The Eagle's list of the 50 greatest Berkshire County athletes of the 20th century.Speed skating is an umbrella term that describes skating in races of varying length. Short track speed skating uses a rink 111 meters in circumference, while long track speed skating (which is usually called just "speed skating") is 400 meters in circumference. Short track speed skating is more of a sprint, with distances between 500 to 1,500 meters.
The sport enjoys vast popularity in the Netherlands and Norway, and other countries, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, have their share of world champions.
In this neck of the woods, the name Mary Lou DiNicola is synonymous with the sport. She has dominated it for several decades.
She has won national age group championships 16 times. She won a World Championship in her age group in 1996 and again in 2001.She has so many medal for regional races that they can fill four boxes. Her long-suffering husband, Richard DiNicola, spent a whole day setting up a display of all his wife's medals for a reporter and photographer. The medals and trophies covered the table, and there was still not enough room.
DiNicola started skating in 1950, as a 10-year-old. She and her four brothers would go to Frog Pond in Pittsfield and just skate. It was no big deal. It was, for a 10-year-old, one of a host of activities in which she took part.
Her first race was that winter. Just a short sprint race.
"It was sponsored by the city," she said. "Anybody could participate, so I signed up."
And she won. She even got a little trophy, which she still has.
"I did it for my mother," she said. "She would always be so happy when I won. She always cut the stories out of The Eagle and put them in a scrapbook. That's why I kept doing it."
It was fun. So she joined the Pittsfield Speed Skating Club.
She was good. In 1955, she was the Junior National and Junior North American Speed Skating Champion. In 1957, she repeated that double win.
But then love intervened. She met her future husband. Dick was a local lad, just going into the service. They were married in 1958 and he was stationed in Oklahoma. Not exactly a hotbed of speed skating.
"Well, I had to go with him," said Mary. "What was I going to do, stay here?"
No. So that was that, as far as the speed skating was concerned.
"I retired to raise a family," she said.
Yes. She retired — for 27 years! And then came back to the sport. Really?
"We came back to the area," she said. "I joined my old club and started skating again."
Are there records for someone winning an individual championship — in any sport — after a 27-year hiatus?
Well, there is now. In 1985, DiNicola was the 1985 short track championship in the 40-49 women's age group. Proving it was no fluke, she won again in 1986. And then again 14 more times, as well as the world championships in 1996 and 2001.
There might have been more. But DiNicola has not been immune to injuries. She has broken her arm, hip, leg, ankle and several fingers, which has forced her to miss meets at various times in her career.
But DiNicola said there wouldn't be any trophies post-1985 without her husband.
"He's the one who makes sure I get to where I'm supposed to go on time," she said. "I hate driving. Do you see all these medals and trophies? I wouldn't have any of them without Dick."
Dick DiNicola shrugs.
"Maybe, maybe not," he said. "I'm just the driver."
But they make a good team. At 77, DiNicola has just completed another season in March. She will return to the ice next fall.
"Oh listen," said her husband. "She's still pretty fast.
"But maybe she'll think about slowing down at some point," he said, half to himself.
"Oh yeah," laughed his wife. "You wish!"
Reach staff writer Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.
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