BY RICH SCHERR
Lisa Fernandez never was one to succumb to a little adversity.
When a coach once told her she was too slow to succeed at softball, she made it her mission to “get faster.” And when told she’d never pitch beyond the age of 16 because her arms were “too short,” she worked to become one of the most feared hurlers in fast-pitch history.
So when Olympic officials installed several new rules prior to the Athens 2004 Olympic Games aimed at giving overmatched hitters more of a fighting chance, Fernandez responded the only way she knew how: By leading the United States to what will likely go down as the most dominant performance by any team in modern Olympic history.
“They really tried to equalize the playing field,” said Fernandez, recalling changes that moved the pitching rubber from 40 to 43 feet, pushed outfield fences back 20 feet and switched the color of the ball from white to bright yellow. “I think that’s what made the 2004 team so great. We took it upon ourselves to really come out and prove a point. We didn’t want to win — we wanted to dominate. It was about leaving a mark.”
And this team certainly left a mark.
Four years after laboring to take the gold in Sydney, Team USA won all nine of its games in Athens, outscoring opponents, 51-1, and not allowing a single run until the sixth inning of its gold-medal game against Australia.
So monumental was the performance that both the squad — dubbed “The Real Dream Team” on the cover of Sports Illustrated — and Fernandez were inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate in July in Chicago. NBC Sports Network will broadcast the ceremony Aug. 23.
“There’s been many great moments in the history of the Olympics, but I can’t think of a team that was any more dominant,” said Mike Candrea, who coached the 2004 U.S. Olympic softball team. “It was the best team that I have ever seen play the game. It had every ingredient that you needed. That team pushed each other to a point in this game where not many have gone.”
All told, the United States set 18 team and individual Olympic records, batting .343 and pitching to a staggeringly low 0.12 ERA. Each starting pitcher — Fernandez, Cat Osterman, Jennie Finch and Lori Harrigan — threw a complete-game shutout.
For Candrea, the performance was particularly emotional after the sudden passing of his wife, Sue, just a month prior to the start of play. The news rattled team members, and prompted Candrea briefly to consider stepping down.
Ultimately, he decided to stay, figuring it “would probably be the best thing for me to keep my mind occupied.” The emotional players rallied around their coach.
“At that moment it was, ‘If he’s going to be here with us, we're going to work our butts off for him,’” recalled shortstop Natasha Watley, who along with teammates endured weeks of arduous training, with an extra focus on conditioning. “I’ve never felt so prepared in my career.”
Wearing helmets and black wristbands adorned with the initials “SC,” the team opened the Games with lopsided victories over Italy and Australia, and then faced its biggest challenge in a rematch of the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game against Japan.
Scoreless through regulation, the Americans took the lead in the eighth when Kelly Kretschman’s sacrifice fly to center scored pinch-runner Amanda Freed. Team USA went on to a 3-0 victory, then finished the job a week later when Crystl Bustos nailed two homers — including a monster shot in the third estimated at nearly 400 feet — in a 5-1 win over Australia in the gold medal game.
“It was one of the best (home runs) I have ever hit in a game,” said Bustos, who led the team with five homers and 10 RBIs for the competition. “If you can score runs for your pitchers, they just relax a lot more. And we were able to produce runs very early in each game.”
That offense proved more than enough for a pitching staff led by Fernandez. Already considered softball royalty, the right-hander's performance at the 2004 Games elevated her to near-mythical stature.
Not only was she 4-0 as a pitcher, but also she set an Olympic record with a .545 batting average to earn honors as USA Softball’s Player of the Year, as well as the 2004 ESPY for Best Female Olympic Performance.
“The thing about her was she made everyone better around her,” Candrea said. “She raised the bar everyday in everything that we did. She expected excellence out of herself, but she also expected excellence out of her teammates. To this day I still think she was probably the best player to ever play the game.”
Though Fernandez also had been on the mound to help the U.S. earn golds in 1996 and 2000, she said the 2004 team stands apart from the rest.
“We truly had a complete team,” Fernandez said. “It was just impressive to be able to have such a great mix of every facet of the game, from the speed to the power to the consistency. We had a complete package.”