The United States Women's National Softball team has won every gold medal since the sport was added to the Olympic program at the 1996 Atlanta Games. They have dominated international competitions like the Pan American Games and World Championships. But as VOA's Steve Schy reports, softball will play its last Olympic innings in Beijing after being removed from the program starting with the 2012 Games in London.
Members of the U.S. women's team have been devastated by the International Olympic Committee's 2005 decision to vote softball off the program. Making the ruling even harder to swallow for some was the fact that softball missed getting the two-thirds majority needed to remain in the Summer Games by a single vote.
The success of the U.S. team has spurred a huge growth in softball's popularity in colleges, high schools and youth leagues. But star pitcher Jennie Finch told VOA Sports the IOC's decision has been decimating to the sport.
"Millions of dreams have been shattered because of it," said Jennie Finch. "You look even at my teammates, Monica Abbot, Caitlin Lowe, Andrea Duran - these are first-time Olympic gold medalists. They can have three Olympic gold medals. And then you look below that, you look at the college athletes today. They could be in the Games for 2012, you are taking away those dreams."
But Finch says the impact goes far beyond the dreams of American players.
"Not only those, but the dreams of the world," she said. "You know, I think Venezuela qualifying for the Olympics, what more does that say about our sport? Cuba, all of these dreams in South America, that is their one ticket out. That is their one outlet, their ball and their glove and their ball field. So continue to keep that and continue to keep dreams alive. The one thing that gets you every time is you walk in these stadiums and they say, 'The IOC took my softball dreams away.' You know, and that is like a knife to the heart. That is why we play this game, is to continue to build opportunities, and continue to encourage them to dream and believe. But if they do not have anything to dream about, what is there?"
The U.S. softball team hopes to use Beijing as a world class stage to showcase the sport and prove it belongs in the Olympics. Two-time gold medalist infielder Crystl Bustos hopes the IOC decision-makers will actually come out and watch softball in Beijing.
"What we have got to do is ask the people that are voting, that do not really quite understand, to come out, watch the sport," said Crystl Bustos. "Watch the game being played at its highest level and see what exactly it does and what it means to people when we are there."
Team USA has undergone a number of changes since winning the softball gold medal in Athens in 2004, but the Americans' dominance in the sport remains. They are ranked number one in the world and posted a 24-1 record during the 2007 summer season. The United States captured four titles - the World Cup, the Pan American Games, Canada Cup and Japan Cup, outscoring opponents 183-14.
The 15-person roster for the 2008 Olympics combines powerful batting and exceptional pitching, with a mix of veterans and first-time Olympians ready to make an impact.
One of the biggest changes to the team is star pitcher Lisa Fernandez's status change to replacement player. The 37-year-old Fernandez has won three gold medals at the Olympics, three at the Pan American Games and four at the World championships. But after taking three years off to raise her son, who was born in 2005, Fernandez was not selected for the main roster. U.S. head coach Mike Candrea told VOA Sports a seven-person selection committee chooses the players.
"This was a four-year process," said Mike Candrea. "We grade all of our athletes, every event. When it came down to the selection process, she was not one of our top-15. She was shocked and disappointed, but Lisa's with us, she is doing everything she can to help this team prepare. And she will always go down in my heart as one of the very best that has ever played this game."
The players say Japan and Australia will be their toughest competition for the gold medal in Beijing, though the host Chinese and Canada could also pose a challenge. The United States will be trying for a fourth Olympic softball gold, while Japan Australia and China each have one silver medal. The Aussies have twice claimed Olympic bronze, while Japan got it once.
Team USA won the gold medal at softball's 2007 and 2006 World Cups, but Japan won the tournament's inaugural gold in 2005, while the United States settled for silver. Japan has also won the silver twice, while Australia won two bronze medals and Canada captured one.
It was much the same at the most recent World Championship in 2006, when the United States took gold, Japan won silver and Australia took the bronze.
Jennie Finch says the competition is getting tougher with the U.S losing three games on the way to winning gold in Sydney, but she thinks her team is up to the challenge.
"After that, dropping three games, our goal was to raise the bar even higher, show the world that we are the better team in the world," said Finch. "That was our goal heading into 2004 and that is what we did. You know, and that is again our goal again for 2008. They are creeping up on us, so let's raise the bar again. Let's keep getting better. How good can we be? That is what the Olympic Games are about, excellence and amazing things, and that is what we strive for, that is what we work for every day, so that is what we live for."
The American women believe a gold medal will help give the sport the push it needs to get reinstated in the Olympic program.
Softball, baseball and golf are among seven sports under consideration to be included at the 2016 Olympics.
The IOC will make its final decision on the contenders - which also include rugby, squash, karate and roller sports - at its October, 2009 assembly in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The IOC has set a ceiling of 28 sports, meaning there will be room for only one or two new additions. A rule change approved last year could make it easier for softball to return in 2016. Under the new formula, only a simple majority is needed for a sport to be voted onto the program. Previously, a two-thirds majority was needed.
The IOC will also select the 2016 host city during the Copenhagen session, with Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro among the leading contenders.