Tokyo 2020: Three days to go

Pitching for one last shot

Lure of Olympic gold too strong for retired players, veterans from US, Japan, Canada

United States softball pitcher Cat Osterman has come out of retirement to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. The 38-year-old won a gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
United States softball pitcher Cat Osterman has come out of retirement to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. The 38-year-old won a gold at the 2004 Athens Games.PHOTO: REUTERS

OAKLAND • The surprise chance to compete for a gold medal in softball at the Tokyo Olympics has lured some women out of coaching, retirement as well as 24/7 parenting duties.

Softball was part of the Olympic programme from 1996 to 2008 before being dropped by the International Olympic Committee to make way for other sports.

But with softball being hugely popular in Japan, who struck gold in Beijing in 2008 after stunning the United States 3-1 in the final, the sport is making a one-off comeback at the Games to attract local fans.

United States softball pitcher Cat Osterman is among those who have been tempted to come out of retirement as she targets a third Olympic medal - 17 years after winning gold in Athens.

The 38-year-old says that team practices now begin with her jokingly telling coach Ken Eriksen "what the old lady feels like today".

But rediscovering swings and tosses, while avoiding knocks and bruises, has been a journey - even before Covid-19 extended training.

"We're doing whatever we can to make sure my body stays in one piece," said Osterman.

The first few games of the competition will be held at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, which is near the site of the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster that forced thousands to flee.

It then moves to Yokohama Stadium, near Tokyo.

The tournament could be shaped by how ex-retirees fare compared with veterans including pitchers Yukiko Ueno of Japan who is 38, Dallas Escobedo, 29, of Mexico and 35-year-old Monica Abbott of the US.

"This will be the toughest Olympics," Eriksen said. "You have six teams that can vie for every game."

Also coming back are 2014 retirees Danielle Lawrie, a pitcher for Canada who quit the international team after becoming a mother, and Yukiyo Mine, a catcher who resurfaced for Japan when softball's Olympic return became official five years ago.

Australia's Leah Parry and Justine Smethurst also came out of retirement, and Italy's Lisa Birocci Banse and Emily Carosone put off coaching.

Canada's 2008 ace Lauren Regula retired twice, briefly returning for the 2016 world championship.

Slugging teammate Jenn Salling would have quit in 2017 had it not been for the chance to compete in Tokyo.

Mexico could be the only one of the medal contenders without an ex-retiree. Its expected average age of 25 may leave it the youngest and longest shot.

Osterman, known for wicked pitch movement, should pair with Abbott as a fearsome US duo.

Lessons learnt from elders in 2008 have helped Osterman resume playing: replacing running with biking being one training change.

"She came back with a vengeance," Eriksen said.

It was fatherly advice that inspired Osterman's comeback.

She said her dad noted it would be a fitting end to her career by donning the US red, white and blue for one last time.

Reuniting with Eriksen played a role, too.

Osterman described him as a "second father" who looked out for her early in her career, including when a caravan for the airport left without her and he returned to scoop her.

It is not lost on Osterman that an exciting Olympic tournament could boost financing of softball and enable younger players to delay retirement.

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic raised a lot of uncertainty, she said: "There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to see it through."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2021, with the headline 'Pitching for one last shot'. Subscribe