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U.S. Olympic Softball Players Reunite To Celebrate 20th Anniversary, Return Of Olympic Softball

By Les East | Dec. 12, 2016, 4:37 p.m. (ET)

U.S. Olympic softball players reunited for an exhibition game on Dec. 10, 2016 in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn't softball season and it certainly wasn't softball weather.

But the timing and conditions were nonetheless appropriate. 

When a team of 19 legendary U.S. Olympic softball players with 36 Olympic medals between them reunited for an exhibition game in 40-degree temperatures on Saturday at the University of New Orleans, it represented not only a celebration of the 20th anniversary of softball's entrance into the Olympic program, but also the sport’s return to the Olympic Games in 2020 after being left out of the last two Games.

"Every day is a good softball day as long as it isn't snowing or raining," three-time Olympian Crystl Bustos said. "Cold is a frame of mind."

As the players signed autographs and posed for photographs, they looked as though they could have just as easily been back in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) or Beijing (2008) preparing for an Olympic game.

"Time has passed but you reconnect like nothing ever happened," said Laura Berg, Team USA's only four-time softball Olympian. "We share something that very few people will ever will able to experience. It's a sisterhood. We have friendships that will last a lifetime because of that bond."

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Berg joked that she has won "three gold medals and one silver that we don't like to talk about," referencing the runner-up finish to Japan in Beijing.

Despite that one blemish, the U.S. has clearly been the standard-setter for Olympic softball, thanks in large part to the group that reunited for the exhibition against the Louisville Slugger Warriors, a group of U.S. military service members and veterans.

Many hadn't seen each other in years, but muscle memory kicked in as soon as they crossed the white line.

"We all think we're still gold-medal winners," said pitcher Jennie Finch, who was on the last two Olympic teams and has been described by Time magazine as the most famous softball player in history.

As is the case with most reunion all-star games such as this one, some players are less removed from their playing days than others.

For Monica Abbott, the youngest team member in 2008, a return to Olympic competition for the 2020 Tokyo Games is a possibility.

"If I can still compete at the highest level, I would like to represent Team USA and help it compete at the highest level in Tokyo in 2020," said Abbott, now 31 and playing in the sport’s professional league, National Pro Fastpitch. "In 2020, obviously I would be one of the oldest and that would be a total role reversal."

Amateur softball has continued to grow, even during the sport's absence from the Olympic Games. The Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City has become a significant event on the late-spring calendar, as has the World Cup of Softball, held every summer in the U.S.

The Olympians agreed that the return to Olympic competition as a motivating force for youngsters can only accelerate the sport's growth.

"I have so many wonderful memories from being in the Olympic Village to the Opening Ceremony and competing on that stage," said Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympian who was on the first U.S. Olympic team in ‘96. "There's nothing like it — the adrenaline, the energy, the commitment and the pride that you have when America comes together and the softball community comes together.

"It was no longer about you or your teammates. It was about these kids in New Orleans and across the country and the softball dreams that they had."

Fernandez said she senses an excitement surrounding softball's return to the Olympics, similar to the one she experienced when it debuted 20 years ago

"I think everyone is coming in with renewed excitement and renewed vigor," Fernandez said. "We were disappointed when it was taken out and now that it's coming back we're rejuvenated. You appreciate the opportunity to represent the red, white and blue unlike any other.

"I remember after the '96 Games someone coming up to me and saying, ‘I'm not really a sports fan but I do know the Olympics. Thank you for representing our country.’ So you reach people you wouldn't otherwise reach because you are representing the red, white and blue. So that definitely takes it to another level to have the entire United States of America rooting for you in representing your country to try and win the gold. It's a feeling unlike any other."

The U.S. softball team that competes at the next Olympics will be the first to do so without Berg as one of its players.

"I was ecstatic when I found out it was coming back," Berg said. "Each Olympics was very, very different in its own right. Now that young people have a chance to compete in multiple Olympics that is so cool and I'm so excited for them."

Berg hopes to land a spot on the coaching staff for Tokyo. Selections for the 2020 team won't begin until 2018, but Berg already sounded like a coach when assessing Team USA’s chances of qualifying for one of the six spots, two fewer than in the past.

"We have got to earn our way there," she said. "We've got to fight like hell for it."

Les East is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

USA Softball's 2016 Olympic Reunion

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Crystl Bustos

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Laura Berg

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Jennie Finch

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Monica Abbott

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Lisa Fernandez