It’s been just over a decade since softball was last included in the Olympic Games, and just over a decade since Japan stunned Team USA in the gold-medal game at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, beating the Americans 3-1.
It was the first time since softball’s Olympic debut in 1996 that Team USA did not won gold. For lefthanded pitcher Cat Osterman, there was a “finite feeling to that loss” in the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game — “since we knew that there weren't any more Olympics,” said Osterman, from her office at Texas State University, where she’s the associate head softball coach.
Now softball has another chance; it’s on the 2020 Olympic program in Tokyo. And Osterman has another chance too. The 35-year-old pitcher — a two-time Olympian who also won gold in 2004 — has come out of retirement and, after team selection trials in early January, was named to the 2019 national team.
From the 18 women named to the 2019 team, 15 will be selected to compete at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games in Peru this coming summer. The 2020 Olympic softball team will also carry 15 players.
“I went in [to tryouts] and thought I threw pretty well,” Osterman said. “So I feel like I’m in a position to be able to throw a lot of innings if they want me to. But I'm going to take whatever role they give me at this point in time and run with it and do whatever they ask me to do.”
Osterman last played for Team USA in 2010 at the world championships in Venezuela. It had been a good run. The youngest player on the 2004 Olympic team, she and her teammates won gold in Athens. Then there was the fateful gold-medal game at the Beijing Games, where Osterman regrets one pitch — the one off which Japan’s Eri Yamada homered in the fourth inning. That put Japan ahead 2-0. Everything that could go wrong, did, said Osterman. And the Americans could not overcome the deficit, eventually falling 3-1.
There was some solace in winning gold at the 2010 world championships. But it wasn’t the Olympic Games. After the 2010 season, Osterman and several teammates moved to the National Pro Fastpitch league.
“We wanted [the sport] to grow in all realms and allow 40, 60, even 80 girls to be able to keep playing past college instead of just 18 with the national team,” explained Osterman.
With no Olympic Games, USA Softball had cut funding, and the women also had bills to pay. Osterman and her teammates asked for a one-year sabbatical from the national team. But most of the group stayed with the pro league in the ensuing years.
Meanwhile, the rebuilding national team lost to Japan in the 2012 and 2014 world championships, bringing home silver medals instead of gold.
Osterman retired from the NPF at the end of 2015. Her arc in softball was coaching, she believed, and she devoted herself fulltime to the Texas State Bobcats. She also had a wedding to plan — to Joey Ashley, Texas State’s golf coach — and she became a stepmom to his daughter, Bracken.
Then in August 2016, during the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that softball would be back on the program at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Osterman wished it had happened sooner. She and her teammates had wanted to avenge the 2008 loss. But most had moved on with their lives.
At the same time, she was happy for the younger athletes coming up in softball to have the Olympic dream again.
“It’s the biggest stage of all sport, so you want to be able to allow people to have that opportunity,” she said.
In the fall of 2017, Osterman signed up for the national team coaching pool. Her role at the 2020 Games, she thought, would likely come in the dugout. Except that with every email she received about events she needed to attend, she realized that she didn’t want to coach. Friends and her boss at Texas State, Ricci Woodard, knew all along that coaching the national team wouldn’t work for Osterman. At least not this go-round. They knew she wanted to play.
“When my boss gave me her blessing and said, ‘We’ll find a way to make it all work,’ I was like, all right, well, I have to at least give it a shot and see what happens,” she said.
Team USA coach Ken Eriksen told espnW that he had waited years for Osterman to call.
Osterman began working out again and in October 2018 was invited to participate in the 2019 USA Softball Women’s National Team Selection Trials. At those trials in early January in Clearwater, Florida, Osterman was very nervous. She had not thrown competitively in three years. The first day, she pitched for four innings, and it took three innings for her to settle down. Nerves were compounded by her competitive juices flowing again, mixed with adrenaline.
“It was trying to learn to control all of that again, which I don’t want to say I’d forgotten about, but I didn’t really think it would affect me as much as it did,” she admitted.
Coach Eriksen was impressed.
“This was undoubtedly one of the most competitive team trials USA Softball has had,” he said. “It was really exciting to see Cat Osterman attend and perform at a very high level.”
Osterman is one of five pitchers named to the 2019 team, including Rachel Garcia, who scored the walk-off run to beat Japan in the semifinals at the 2018 world championship, and Monica Abbott, a 2008 Olympic teammate who returned to the national team a year earlier.
Should Abbott and Osterman, the two Olympic veterans, make the 2020 roster, they can help the younger women — most of whom were still in grade school when the U.S. fell to Japan at the 2008 Olympic Games — adjust to the rigorous schedule leading up to the Games, as well as the hype of the Games themselves. The younger women are not lacking in international experience, though. Most helped Team USA win gold at the 2016 and 2018 world championships.
Osterman — who has gained patience from her experience coaching and jokes with her Texas State players that she takes their bad habits with her — is looking forward to getting to know her new teammates during training and games this coming year.
She hasn’t lost any of her pitching punch. Osterman believes she is throwing as well as she did back in the day, with just a few kinks to work out.
“The good part is I was never a power pitcher, so it’s not like because I lose strength, I lose speed,” she said. “I’ve always been more of a spin pitcher, and I think as long as I can keep my spin going, then I’ll be in a good spot.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.