|Aug 06||USA Softball's Olympic Games Swan Song|
USA Softball pitcher and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch-Daigle was seated next to the President of the United States at a White House dinner last month honoring Olympic athletes. As she looked down at the White House china plate and saw her face and the President's in the reflection, "it was a pinch-yourself experience to see myself sitting there. It was one of those moments that you don't expect will ever happen in life," she said.
Finch-Daigle, 28, of La Mirada, CA is known for her pitching prowess and gold medal play but is also among one of People Magazine's 50-most beautiful people in the world. Yet, for Finch-Daigle and the other 14-members of the US Women's Softball team, everything about this Beijing Olympics will reflect that pinch-yourself quality.
In 2005, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) saw the need to pair down the sheer number summer sports at the Olympic Games, but in the end voted to eliminate only two - softball and baseball. They are the first sports dropped from the Olympic program since polo in 1936. While this four-time gold medal team will attempt to continue the legacy of unparalleled play-the US has won every Olympic Game it has played since 1996--this will also be the sports' swan song with a more nostalgic team now in Beijing.
"The fact that it is the last time we will play in the Olympics is at the back of all of our minds," said two-time gold medalist outfielder Laura Berg, 33, of Santa Fe Springs, CA. "I think it is most unfortunate because our sport is accessible to so many girls where it does not entirely depend on an athlete's build or height to play. It is available to young women from all different backgrounds."
As the sport has grown - 130 countries are members of the International Softball Federation - the women have faced a growing threat from countries like China, Korea, Japan, Australia, and Canada. The level of play, too, has improved according to Ron Radigonda, Executive Director of the Amateur Softball Association (USA Softball) and the women are particularly wary of the talented Japanese team going into the Beijing Games.
"In many respects, the 2008 team is vastly superior to the 1996 team," said Radigonda. "Being an Olympic sport definitely raises the bar. And, increasingly, these young women have been able to have an impact everywhere, not just in this country but internationally."
Players like outfielder and 2004 gold medalist Jessica Mendoza, 28, who is referred to as ‘arguably the most complete softball player in the world' by USA Today is a great role model and player. She has emerged as an ace since the 2004 Games and in 2006, she led the United States to its first gold medal at the World Cup of Softball with three home runs, 16 RBI while hitting .611. She is the incoming president of the Women's Sports Foundation, a second-generation Mexican American and a graduate of Stanford University. She has been inducted into the International Latin Sports Hall of Fame and is at her second Olympic Games.
"My Dad was a baseball coach so I played baseball first. I was totally a tomboy and Daddy's little girl - first the bat girl for his baseball team and then the only girl on an all boy's baseball team. When I first joined the boy's team, no one wanted to play catch with me," Mendoza said. "But after a couple of days, everyone wanted to play catch with me so that was pretty cool." Not only can she play catch but she can hit, too. Last season she hit .417 as the U.S. won the World Cup and Canada Cup.
The 2008 Olympic Team has ten returning veterans who have led the newer players through the ropes of what to expect at the Games.
"Basically, it is our livelihood and we train for four years to be on this stage," said 2004 gold medalist pitcher Catherine Osterman, 25, of Houston, TX. "It is an intense level of play. We don't want to go over there to play and lose. This is what we do full-time."
With no Olympics after 2008, the World Championship games will become the benchmark for softball but will not be played until 2010. However, reduced funding for the national softball team and a number of the women retiring from play after this year may mean this all star team will have to re-build.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Crystl Bustos, 31, of Canyon Country, CA, is a third baseman on her third Olympic run. She's referred to as the most feared hitter in the softball world and broke Olympic records with five home runs and 10 RBI in Athens in 2004.
"The last time seeing softball as an Olympic sport is really heart- wrenching because we have worked so hard only to see it taken away," said Bustos. "All these little girls that we see all over the country and abroad who are striving to be where we are at won't have that opportunity. We are hoping to work hard to get it back into the Games in 2016 and until that time we will showcase our sport throughout the world to illustrate how many of the countries have gotten involved with the sport and have gotten so much better."
Laurie Fullerton is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.