Softball Is Back in the Olympics, and So Are 10 Veterans of 2008
TOKYO – At the 2008 Olympics, Kaleigh Rafter was 21 and represented Canada although she had yet to complete her college softball career. Still, she believed she would likely not have the chance to compete in the Olympics any longer, as her sport had been excluded from the permanent program.
“I remember saying to my roommate, ‘I’ll never be 34 on this team,’” Rafter, a receiver, recalled recently. “It won’t be me. I’ll be out of the sport by then.
“And then of course I’m here.”
Not only is Rafter back for the Olympics, her Canadian teammates Lauren Regula, Jenn Salling and Danielle Lawrie are too. Yukiko Ueno, Eri Yamada and Yukiyo Mine from Japan are too. And then there’s Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott from the United States, as well as Australia’s Stacey Porter. All 10 players are taking part in this tournament more than a decade after competing in the 2008 Games.
“It’s kinda crazy that there are 10, and it’s really cool,” said Porter, 39, an infielder and Australia captain.
For many Olympians, participating in the Games is the accomplishment of a lifetime. For the best, an Olympic career can span two, three, or even – in the case of ageless Brazilian footballer Formiga – seven Games appearances. But it is much rarer that these multiple trips separate from a generation.
Life can go on. And for a lot of softball players, it is. They went to school, they played professionally, they worked as coaches, they started businesses, they got married, they had children, they faced injuries and other challenges and many have retired.
But the 10 veterans of 2008 who return this summer have also continued to play for their national teams. This made their return a testament to their talent and dedication to a sport that was once unwanted by the Olympics.
“It just shows that you don’t have to quit this game in your twenties or early thirties,” said Osterman, 38. “You can keep playing and you can keep doing it. Nobody blinks when the men do, so the women show that we can keep playing too.”
Softball would not have been in this position without a close vote from the International Olympic Committee in 2005 which removed the sport from the program of the London Games in 2012. Critics at the time were that softball – and its Olympic men’s equivalent baseball – was not global enough.
When news of the IOC vote reached Osterman, she called it a “blind fist”.
“I thought 2008 was going to be the end for me,” said Regula, now 39. “And I remember thinking it was going to be a blow to softball. There are so many softball players who will never be able – back then it was like never before since we didn’t know if it was coming back. – to be able to have the opportunities that we had. ”
Above all, Regula feared that young girls no longer aspire to play softball or dream of the Olympics.
Two years after Ueno, the ace of Japan, led his country to the surprise of the United States for the gold medal in 2008, Osterman and Abbott, two of the most decorated pitchers in the world, withdrew from the US national team. With no Olympics in sight, they focused on their professional careers. Both played in the United States and Abbott played in Japan as well, and both supplemented their income with college coaching, clinics, or motivational lectures.
In 2015, still unsure of the return of Olympic softball, Osterman pulled away from the pitcher altogether. She was, she said, ready to “settle down, get married and have a life.”
Regula and Lawrie also retired after the 2008 Olympics for family reasons. Lawrie, now 34, left Team Canada in 2012 and professional softball in 2014 in order to be able to give birth to her daughter. She said she was “really happy” to be retired, and without Salling and Rafter, two pillars of the Canadian program, she would not have sacrificed time away from her family to join them in 2018.
Regula retired after the Beijing Olympics because she had married the previous year, wanted to start a family (from 2009 she had three children in three years) and quickly owned a gym. sport with her husband. She did not resume a ball until 2016, when she represented Canada at the World Women’s Softball Championship.
Even though she knew Olympic softball was back in 2020, Regula was busy juggling family and business and retired again. The itch returned in 2019 as she worked as a broadcaster and worked the tournament in which Canada qualified for the Tokyo Games.
She was back on the mound the following year and named to the roster in May, a comeback sparked by watching her teammates play as they got older. “I didn’t even think I would ever be in this position right now,” she said.
From Team Japan, Mine briefly retired in 2015, but returned when softball’s Olympic return was announced the following year. (Mine, Ueno and Yamada were not available for interviews ahead of the Olympics as they were busy getting ready, a team official said.)
Over the years, Osterman has said that she and Abbott, 35, didn’t necessarily miss the Olympics because they were playing at a high professional level. She felt bitterness in 2012 in the face of exclusion. Abbott said it was difficult to watch the Olympics after giving up softball, and he felt the efforts to reestablish it were endless.
“There was definitely some kind of disappointment when the Olympics was going to be held, and people were excited, and you couldn’t go,” she said. “Not necessarily for me, but that softball wasn’t there. We did not have this opportunity.
After the 2008 Olympics, the Women’s Softball World Cup was reduced from every four years to two years. Coupled with the Pan Am Games and other international competitions, the events have only helped satisfy a portion of players’ competitive urges.
“It tastes a bit like an Oreo when you know it’s not the real Oreo,” Rafter said of those other tournaments. “Nothing will ever be the Olympics. The Olympic medal is much different from a world championship medal, even though it has become what we were playing for.
Even after the confirmation of softball’s return for the Tokyo Games, Osterman did not jump at the chance to return. She said she was glad to be retired, but her former US softball teammates Kelly Kretschman and Abbott continued to harass her into reconsideration.
While players like Lawrie had serious doubts about whether the Olympics would continue after the coronavirus pandemic forced the 2020 Games to be postponed, Osterman did not. She had done so much to reach this point, including coming out of retirement and resigning her assistant coaching position at Texas State University to focus on training.
“There was no part of me that wanted to go back,” she said.
During the Olympic softball break, many players said the quality of the international game was improving as more players developed into the US college and professional ranks. The United States and Japan, however, remain the world powers.
But the return of these Games, however, is bittersweet. Softball will not be at the 2024 Games in Paris because baseball and softball are not popular in France. Both sports, however, are widely expected to return in 2028 in Los Angeles.
Osterman and Abbott both said if they were at the Olympics then maybe as coaches, not as players.
When asked in a recent video chat if they would continue until then, the four Team Canada veterans burst into laughter. What is seven years after having already waited for 13? “I don’t know if I can rationalize the postponement of life up to age 41,” Rafter said.
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