Haylie McCleney is a member of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Softball Team.
Outfielder Haylie McCleney was Alabama’s sixth four-time All-American in program history when she graduated in 2016. With the U.S. softball team, McCleney has won two world titles (2016, 2018), world silver (2014), two World Cup of Softball gold medals (2015, 2014) and Pan American Games gold (2019). McCleney was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team in October 2019.
Most athletes will tell you their journey to Tokyo started four years ago, after the Olympic Games Rio 2016. For me and my teammates it’s just a bit longer. Our journey to Tokyo began in 2008, after the Olympics in Beijing, where the U.S. collected a silver medal. We knew softball had been voted off the Olympic program for the next Games.
I had just turned 14 years old. I watched the athletes on Team USA leave their cleats at home plate and I watched careers end that weren’t supposed to. I thought I had watched my dream of playing for Team USA die right in front of me. With professional opportunities extremely limited in softball, I thought that playing collegiately was the highest I was ever going to get. Over time, that became more and more OK with me as I started the recruiting process and ended up signing to play at the University of Alabama, just an hour away from my hometown.
My sophomore year at Alabama, after a good freshman campaign and a stint on the junior women’s national team, I was asked to try out for THE women’s national team. It was a dream come true at the time. I made the team and although we were not currently on the Olympic program, the pride of wearing red, white and blue with those three letters across your chest is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my 25 years on this planet. It was enough—until it wasn’t.
When we knew the Games were going to be in Tokyo, immediately we knew softball had a shot to get back in. The people of Japan absolutely adore our sport, have plenty of facilities to accommodate us, and we knew they wanted us there. The campaign began. 2020: Bring Softball Back. We worked tirelessly with USA Softball, the Japanese Softball Association and the World Baseball Softball Confederation, playing as hard as we could and talking to whoever would listen to us, to show everyone what we knew all along: We belong.
We played for little to nothing those years, only in hoping for a chance to chase a dream we thought was impossible. And on Aug. 3, 2016, we did it. We got in. Softball was back. Olympic dreams were reborn. EVERYONE in our sport was now focused on Tokyo 2020. It became the center of our lives.
We qualified for the 2020 Games in Japan at the 2018 world championships. We didn’t have to win the gold-medal game to qualify, as we were playing Japan, who already had an Olympic spot as host country, but we won anyway in extra innings on a walk-off hit by my friend, Kelsey Stewart, who has been on the team with me since 2014. Everything was set up for us to have a storybook ending as Team USA, hopefully in the gold-medal game again, on July 28, 2020, in Tokyo. Gold medals around our necks, standing as one on the highest podium, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That is the story we were telling ourselves. That is the vision we shared.
2020 for most of the women on my team is our only shot, as we already know we are not going to be included in 2024 Games in Paris. We are still hoping to be included in the 2028 Olympics, but that has not been decided yet. So when Adam Silver decided to suspend the NBA season on March 11, we knew we might be in trouble. We were on our Stand Beside Her tour, presented by Major League Baseball, getting ready to play an exhibition game against the Washington Huskies in Seattle. We had been on the road for two months already and were just starting to crack the surface of becoming the team that we wanted to be. For many of us, this was the first time we felt like true professional athletes. We were being fully supported by our National Governing Body, we were training more than we ever had, and our only focus was on softball. A gold medal. It was our only care in the world. It was all about July 22, 2020—our first game against Italy.
Then something that we never saw coming. The next thing we knew, after an emergency team meeting that took place on the bus, we were booking flights to go home as soon as possible. Our tour suspended. In the days that followed, we constantly watched the news, hearing thoughts of the Games being cancelled, pushed back; all of the speculation while our dream that we had fought so hard for hung in the balance.
Then it happened.
Postponement. A dream we as a sport had waited 12 years for was pushed back to 13. Our lives that we had put on hold, jobs that we had either quit or passed up, families some of us had planned to start, weddings… all of it forced to wait another year.
What we were feeling was overwhelming. Is our NGB still going to support us? How are we going to pay the bills? Will we still have our sponsorships? Can we even make it? Do I need to start applying for jobs right now?
We all had this image of what our 2020 was going to look like and nothing was going as planned. Our dreams once again changing because of circumstances outside of our control. But here is the beauty in all of it, I have never felt closer to my team than I do right now. We are united. All of us in the struggle together, and I am confident we are going to come out on the other side of this stronger. Our sport is accustomed to adversity.
I had a lightbulb moment once I managed to have some quiet time after the chaos ensued. I realized that I have control over what story I am telling myself. We all do. We can choose to continue asking questions that we know we don’t have answers to, or we can have the discipline to make the most of the hand that we have been dealt. I am going with the latter. I am doing my best to take this one day at a time until July 23, 2021. That is all I can do.
So what does that look like? Is it unrealistic optimism just knowing that everything will work itself out? No. It is a balance of pragmatism and optimism. It is sitting down every single day and saying, ‘This is what I have in front of me and this is how I am going to make the most of it.’ It is maximizing the resources that I do have, it is staying grateful for the blessings during this pandemic, and it is continuing to build my connection with my teammates. If I do the best with what I’ve got, I know it will all work itself out. I simply must have the faith to continue to tell myself that story.
We know that our role as citizens is much bigger than our role as athletes during this unprecedented time in the world. We gladly sacrifice our routines, our schedules, our lives’ plans for the greater good of humanity. Being a team-sport athlete is and always will be about selflessness. Does that make it easy? No.
But is it worth it? Yes.
Like many of you, I don’t know what the future holds, but I know Team USA will be better in 2021 than we were going to be in 2020. What a story it will be when people will be back together again, watching the biggest sporting event in the world, united in the strength we all gained from this pandemic. A new world with refreshed perspective and relentless gratitude. Patience is a virtue. Our dreams will be worth the wait. Let’s turn up for 2021.