Softball star Monica Abbott experienced the thrill of playing in the Olympic Games in 2008, when the ace left-hander won a silver medal with Team USA. Just 23 years old, she was a rising star in the sport and the youngest member of Team USA.
Then the Olympic dream died for Abbott and a generation of her peers as the sport was removed from the Olympic program.
Now she’s getting a second chance at a second Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee dropped softball and baseball after the 2008 Games in Beijing, and rejected a bid to add the sports back for 2016. However, that year the IOC did vote to bring the sports back for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Soon after, Abbott publicly stated her intention of making the team and returning for another shot at Olympic gold.
The journey for Abbott, now 33, has been a long one. Since the 2008 Games, she’s enjoyed a highly successful professional career both in the U.S. and Japan. This summer she rejoined the national team for the first time since 2010, helping the U.S. win the USA Softball International Cup last month. In the second game of the tournament, she struck out 16 in a complete-game, one-hit shutout win over China, and she finished with 17 shutout innings in pool play.
Now with the team in Chiba, Japan, for the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship, with a chance to officially qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on the line, Abbott took some time out of her schedule to speak with TeamUSA.org about her return to the team and her goals moving forward.
What has it been like coming back and playing with the national team again?
It’s been really good. More so than anything, when I think about the opportunity to compete for Team USA again the word that pops in my head is gratitude. Just going through that process of softball appealing to be in the Olympics again (for 2016) and then not making it, and appealing and not making it, to have that opportunity and have a chance is something I’m really grateful for, not only for myself but for everyone to have a chance to compete at the highest stage.
What’s the team like now compared to 2008 or 2010?
I think some things are really different, and there are some things that are the same. The game of softball is the game of softball no matter what, but I think as time has passed the sport has really evolved with the entertainment level we can put on as far as making pitches move more and the speed of our pitches, or hitters having more power. Just the technology involved in the game has made it so much more fun to play and fun to watch, and also more challenging.
What’s it been like getting to know the new players and finding your role on the team?
It’s been good. Obviously with a whole new team and new leadership you have to kind of figure out where you fit in and what is going to be expected from you and what you can do to help in any way you can. It’s been challenging at times adjusting to personalities and figuring out everyone’s perfect mixture, so to speak, but it’s been good. At the end, having that common goal is something that always unites you.
Monica Abbott pitches at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 20, 2008 in Beijing.
How are you different now from when you last played with the national team in 2010?
I’ve definitely changed. I was the youngest player in ’08, and I had some great veterans around me. Now I’m the oldest player in a role where I know I need to be a veteran at times and choose my words and my timing well. I’ve evolved as an athlete, I’ve played professionally now for quite some time both overseas and in the U.S., and just that experience has allowed me to mold my game in so many different ways. That experience is something I’m so grateful for, and I know it’s going to come in handy down the road.
Does this journey so far and thinking about 2020 feel different than the last time you did it?
Yeah, it does. Obviously it’s a new team and new players and I think more so the excitement level, not only from us but from almost every other country, is higher, from Italy to Japan to the media involved in softball and from all the fans and people that support softball. Everyone’s excited about it. Everyone’s talking about softball being in the Olympics again. Even two years ago people were saying, “Let’s go for 2020,” and pumping me up and asking how the team is going to be in 2020. I was like, “It’s four years away,” but that people were asking questions was so cool because it shows how much it means to everyone to have the opportunity to compete at this level again.
You said two years ago that you hoped to play in 2020 and were the first Olympian to say, “Yes, I want this to happen.” Was it a no-brainer to make that commitment?
Yeah, it was. I’ve been playing for Toyota in Japan and they’re major Olympic partners and huge fans of softball. Some of the bosses there were talking to me about the Olympics, and I knew if I had the opportunity that I wanted the chance to be the veteran. I want a chance to play not only in Japan in front of some of the people I’ve been playing for for Toyota, but I also wanted that opportunity to be that veteran, to share my experiences from ’08 and to help the girls on Team USA and the staff of Team USA with those types of things. You can draw from the old and combine it with the new to make the best combination.
Do you remember how and when you found out that softball would be back on the Olympic slate?
Yeah, I actually watched the live stream when they were voting. I was nervous and I definitely cried. I was with my fellow teammate at the time, (two-time Olympian) Natasha Watley, and we watched it.
What was that news like after all the ups and downs?
It was almost like relief, like finally they believe in us and they’re giving us a chance. When you invest so much in something — no matter what it is — in your daily life you’re so imbedded in it, but to know the outside world sees it as valuable means so much. There were tears, happiness, joy, elation. It was cool.
After being the youngest on the team in ’08, are you looking forward to the chance to potentially be the only Olympic veteran?
I am looking forward to it. I was fortunate in ’08 to be able to talk to some of those vets and people like Lisa Fernandez and Crystl Bustos who were really instrumental in sharing their experience with me. I just want to be open to them and if there’s something they’re thinking about, how can I share with them to put them in the best position to be successful and help them as a teammate.
I understand the excitement is already very high in Japan for 2020?
Oh my gosh, of course. It’s huge over here. They already have all their billboards at the airport and everywhere there are signs in train stations for Tokyo 2020. They talk about it a lot on TV. Even (last week) at a small practice game out in the country we had a nice little crowd. I’d definitely say the excitement is building.
What are you hoping for at this world championship?
Obviously the ultimate goal is to qualify for 2020 for Team USA, but within that I’m really hoping our team meshes well and that we take it day by day. The tournament goes over almost a week, so if we’re able to take it day by day, game by game, and not look too far ahead and stay in the moment we have a good opportunity to be successful.
Editor’s Note: Team USA can qualify for the 2020 Games either by winning the world title or finishing second to Japan, which automatically qualifies for the Olympics as host country.
And how do you see these next two years progressing for you personally?
I have a little bit of three-year plan right now, but a lot has centered around this year. After this then I’ll go back and re-look at my process and my little game plan, so to speak, and try to speak with (Team USA head coach Ken) Eriksen and the rest of the staff on different things they see for me, or what I feel like I need to improve or spend more time on to ultimately take a step up in 2019. And then I’ll reevaluate again for 2020.