By Shawn Smith | July 29, 2019, 4:13 p.m. (ET)

Rachel Garcia pitches against Mexico at the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on Aug. 3, 2018 in Chiba, Japan. 

 

When the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 kick off in one year, they’ll bring with them the return of softball, a sport that first joined the Olympic program in 1996 and then was missing from it in 2012 and 2016.

For the U.S. softball team, it’s an event 12 years in the making — a chance to finally go back and reclaim the gold medal that slipped through its hands in 2008.

One of the young stars who could help make that a reality is Rachel Garcia.

Garcia, 22, is coming off a season in which she helped lead UCLA to the Women’s College World Series title. As a two-way threat, her dominance on the mound and her excellence in the batter’s box put her in a class rarely seen.

As a pitcher, Garcia compiled a 29-1 record to go along with a 1.14 ERA last season. As a hitter, she produced a .343 batting average and added 11 home runs.

In the postseason tournament, she led all pitchers in wins (9) and led all hitters in RBIs (16).

Her pièce de résistance came during a semifinal game versus Washington that progressed into extra innings. Garcia went the distance in that one, pitching 10 shutout innings and striking out 16 batters on 179 pitches before bashing a three-run walk-off homer to win the game.

“Growing up, as a young athlete, I was always told I wasn’t going to be able to do both (pitching and hitting), and I kind of used that as motivation, and I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Garcia said. “I worked harder at the hitting part of it because pitching was always easy for me, so I knew I had to dig deeper and put in extra time with the hitting.”

“I love pitching, but I do take more pride in the hitting,” she added.

The accolades are plentiful. Garcia is now the back-to-back USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. She was named Most Outstanding Player of the Women’s College World Series this year. She’s won numerous other national and conference awards.

Her profile has already begun to transcend softball. Earlier this year, she was nominated for an ESPY for Best College Athlete alongside the likes of stars Kyler Murray and Zion Williamson — players who were drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL and NBA drafts this year.

But the honors for which she’s most proud? Winning the 2019 Honda Cup, which goes to the collegiate woman athlete of the year. She earned the award for softball last year but took a step forward this year by being named the top female college athlete across all sports.

“I’d definitely have to say that one was by far my favorite one,” Garcia said. “Just from being around such amazing female athletes.”

Garcia will return to UCLA for her senior season later this year, but right now, she’s spending the summer training and playing with the U.S. softball team. The Pan American Games, which start Friday, will soon provide some meaningful competition for the squad.

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Next year, though, it will be all about the Olympic Games. Team USA has already qualified thanks to its win at the 2018 world championship, and while the roster for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Softball Team is yet to be determined, Garcia figures to play a key role on that squad.

Softball first debuted at the Olympics in 1996 — one year before Garcia was born. She grew up watching her sport at a time when the Olympics represented its pinnacle, and she has many fond memories of those days.

She remembers watching three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez, who is now one of her coaches at UCLA.

“She was always my inspiration for softball,” Garcia said. “And now that I’ve had an opportunity to work with her in college, she’s helped me grow so much in the sport."

Garcia was just 11 years old during the 2008 Games, when Team USA lost to Japan 3-1 in the final to end its run of three straight Olympic titles.

Unfortunately for the Americans, they wouldn’t have the chance to avenge that loss. Several years earlier, organizers had already voted to remove softball fror the 2012 Olympic program. The sport also missed the cut for the 2016 Games.

Because softball and baseball are extremely popular in Japan, though, the International Olympic Committee approved bringing the sports back for Tokyo 2020.

It was a victory for Garcia and softball players around the world.

“It was a big eye-opener — almost like a weight was lifted off,” said Garcia, a native of Palmdale, California. “As a young girl, this is something you’ve always wanted to accomplish in your life, and now that’s it finally back, there’s really no words for it. It’s truly exciting to see softball and baseball back in the Olympics in 2020.”

While Garcia was just a young kid when Team USA last participated in an Olympic softball game, some of her current teammates have more vivid memories of that game. That’s because they played in it.

Among the 18 players named to the U.S. softball team this year were a pair of legendary pitchers: Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott.

Osterman and Abbott, who both spent time on the mound during that 2008 gold-medal game versus Japan, are the only Olympians on the current roster — something they’re able to use to help their younger teammates like Garcia.

“It’s such an honor (to play with them),” Garcia said. “I watched them growing up, and just being able to say they’re my teammates now, it’s amazing. I get to not only watch them and be their teammate, but I get to grow and learn from them as well.”

When Osterman, 36 and also a 2004 gold medalist, came out of retirement last year, she was clear about her goals. 

“Plain and simple, there’s unfinished business,” the two-time Olympian wrote on social media at the time.

The quest to finish that business will start about one year from now, and softball’s return to the Olympics is likely to bring some more eyeballs to the sport between now and then. With its Olympic status uncertain past 2020, Garcia wants new fans to know that the game is constantly growing, and the best is yet to come.

“Softball continues to grow, and the sport gets better each and every year,” she said. “From where it started to now, it’s been incredible to watch it expand.”

Shawn Smith is a writer from Washington, D.C., who has covered three Olympic Games for NBC Sports. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.