Lisa Fernandez has witnessed the arc of Olympic softball in the United States, from the exhilaration of being included in the Games for the very first time and winning the gold medal to the heartbreak of the sport being dropped from the program.
A three-time Olympic gold medalist herself, starting when softball debuted at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, she’s now an assistant coach at UCLA and will watch some of the players she’s coached make their Olympic debuts for Team USA this summer, when the sport returns to the Games after a 12-year hiatus.
“Even though (softball) isn’t back on a permanent basis, just being in these 2020 Games is still an opportunity for these kids currently on the team to do something that less than 1 percent of all athletes get to do, which is truly represent their sport at the highest level,” said Fernandez, a dominant right-handed pitcher for more than 15 years with the national team. “Although it’s not the same as being part of the Olympic program forever, it’s still something to be back in that movement, and for athletes to get that opportunity is incredible because there really is nothing like it. It brings the sport back in the limelight for kids of the future to know, maybe not in 2024, but hopefully in 2028, what’s possible.”
Softball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996, 30 years after the first world championships were held. The U.S. had won all but one of those world titles by the time Atlanta happened, and it was there that the Americans defeated China for the first gold medal. Fernandez, with a 0.33 ERA, was dominant in Atlanta and recorded the final three outs against China.
That iconic 1996 group is one of many teams being celebrated for Women of Team USA Week.
The U.S. then won again in 2000 and 2004 before taking silver in 2008, three years after the International Olympic Committee voted to drop softball and baseball beginning in 2012. Fernandez was an alternate for the 2008 team.
Members of the 1996 U.S. softball team celebrate winning gold at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 on July 30, 1996 in Atlanta.
Few of the members of the 2020 team that will compete at the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008 are old enough to remember when the 1996 team won the gold medal. A handful weren’t even born yet.
Cat Osterman, who was 13 years old at the time, is an exception. She had only been playing for two years and at that point still considered herself more of a basketball player than a softball player, and her memories are little more than her dad pointing out the games and watching a little on TV.
In the years to come, however, Osterman would not only share an Olympic roster spot with Fernandez and others from that Atlanta team, but come to include 1996 team members and fellow pitchers Lori Harrigan and Michele Smith among her greatest influences and supporters.
Not long after the 1996 Games, Osterman went to a softball camp in South Florida, near her grandparents, because Smith was going to be there.
“At the time she was the big lefty pitcher in the game, and we went to see her because my dad thought it might give me inspiration, and it did,” said Osterman, also a left-hander. “She followed my career after that point, I got to have lessons with her, and she took an interest in my progress. Because of that, I wanted to be like her. So yeah, Michele was the most immediate person that impacted me. Then I’ve never been shy about saying when I got to the national team program Lori Harrigan took me under her wing.”
Osterman was just 20 years old at the time, a couple years younger than everyone else, and admits she had a reputation as being a bit of a brat. Harrigan wasn’t afraid to call her out on her behavior. She also helped Osterman fit in and modeled how things were done on and off the field.
Now 36, Osterman came out of retirement to get one more crack at the Games, and is now the veteran leader of the team. Although the players today may not know the specific history of the 1996 Games, she said, they do know and appreciate who came before them. As an example, Osterman said, the team presented two-time gold medalist and Liberty University coach Dot Richardson, who hit the game-winning home run in the 1996 gold-medal game against China, with a team helmet when the U.S. played against the Flames last month as part of the “Stand Beside Her” tour. That was the idea of one of the younger players on the team, Osterman said.
One of the biggest differences between 1996 and now, Fernandez said, is the role of technology in the game. Back then the video scouting and the ability for players to analyze their opponents as well as their own games down to the most minute detail just wasn’t there.
Cat Osterman competes at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 18, 2008 in Beijing, China.
“Strategy has to come into play and you have to be more well-rounded,” she said. “Teams have scouting reports on you, and you have to be able to make adjustments.”
Nutrition, diet and training have also advanced tremendously even in the last 10 or 15 years, she said, and that knowledge has narrowed the margin of error even more in terms of the advantages one country might have over the other.
The sport has also grown through the collegiate game, including internationally. While the entire U.S. team is current or former student-athletes, a number of players who starred in Division I programs, including Arizona and Arizona State, will play for Mexico this summer, while Washington ace Gabbie Plain is from Australia and will represent her country.
“But at the end of the day the game is the same regardless of the competition,” Fernandez said. “It doesn’t matter what venue, what field, what country. The rules are the same, the bases are the same, the ball is round. The team that will be able to simplify the game and stay within themselves will be the team that will win. For Team USA that will be the challenge. Can they keep the game simple and play to the level that doesn’t require them to believe that they need to do more.”