Delaney Spaulding rounds the bases at the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on Aug. 12, 2018 in Chiba, Japan.
When Delaney Spaulding hit first base and started to make a move toward second following a bad throw, her Olympic dream nearly died almost as soon as it was getting started.
Spaulding, an infielder from Rancho Cucamonga, California, had been one of 15 players named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Softball Team, with their sport set to be contested for the first time since 2008. Yet on that simple play in the top of the sixth inning of the Stand Beside Her tour opener on Feb. 4, her hopes of playing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were suddenly in peril.
A quick on-field diagnosis by the on-site physician in Tampa, Florida, was devastating: Spaulding had torn the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in her right knee. The injury was confirmed by Team USA doctors following an MRI a couple days later in Salt Lake City.
The outlook? A recovery time of six to eight months with surgery.
With the Tokyo Games scheduled to start July 24, that meant she would in all probability miss the Games.
“I didn’t have six to eight months,” Spauding said Friday, a day before her 25th birthday. “So I was just talking to Dr. (Travis) Maak and I came to the conclusion that I’m just going to do intense rehab, I’m going to put a brace on it and I’m gonna try to do anything that I possibly can to help the team out. And so that was a decision then, before anything crazy happened in the world.”
And by crazy, Spaulding means the global pandemic created by COVID-19, which has brought activity around the world to a near-standstill. It led to cancelations and postponements throughout the sports world, including the unprecedented decision in late March to push the Tokyo Games back one year to 2021.
Spaulding had been working on one-legged exercises, strengthening her hamstrings, glutes and core to provide stability to her injured right knee and allow her to swing that bat. But with the Olympics delayed a year, her medical outlook suddenly changed.
A two-time world champion (2016, 2018) for Team USA, Spaulding was able to change from her regimen of strengthening the knee to now getting surgery and not worrying about missing the sport’s historic (and, for now, one-time-only) return to the Olympic Games.
More good news was that Spaulding’s rehab had been going very well and she had felt no pain since the injury, which affected her plant leg as a right-handed hitter.
“(It) was very reassuring for me,” Spaulding said. “I was heading in the right direction.”
Helping to ease her mind was USA Softball’s commitment to keeping the original roster intact for the postponed Games. That decision was announced May 7, though the players had been informed previously.
As the pandemic forced states to cease elective surgeries, Spaulding had to wait until Utah lifted that restriction. When it did, she and mom Yvonne drove from Southern California to Salt Lake City for the procedure. First, though, Spaulding had to take a COVID-19 test to make sure she didn’t have the virus. She was pretty confident she was in the clear as she had been doing a good job of staying at home and self-quarantining. That was confirmed via a drive-through testing facility used by the University of Utah.
Spaulding took the test on May 1. The results came back a couple days later, and surgery was scheduled for May 5.
Three days after that, she and her mom were back home in Rancho Cucamonga.
“It’s a great feeling,” Spaulding said of still having that Olympic dream. “To know that you know USA Softball has our back — I mean, they picked this team for a reason — and, although it is completely out of our control that it got postponed, that they still believe in us to be able to perform again in 2021. Just for me personally obviously with getting injured on our very first game of the tour, it just allows me to take a deep breath, to get the surgery and to really go through each and every step of this recovery and to make sure that I am really, really paying attention to detail and getting my leg back to where it was and even better.”
Support from her parents, Yvonne and Bill, along with her teammates has helped keep her spirits up. Spaulding is constantly receiving encouragement on a team chat. Following surgery, her teammates even put together “a really cute video” for her.
Spaulding will continue to rehab at home and hopes to be back with her teammates as soon as is allowed, keeping the Olympic dream alive for her family. A first-team All-Pac-12 Conference selection as a junior and senior, Spaulding comes from a softball family, with two of her three sisters also having played at the Division I level.
“It’s definitely a family accomplishment to just be able to wear my last name on a USA jersey at the Olympics,” Spaulding said. “I mean it doesn't get any better than that.”