Rachel Garcia prepares to bat at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 10, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Rachel Garcia’s collegiate softball career couldn’t have been going better when she postponed it last fall.
The two-time national player of the year, Garcia, a pitcher and first baseman, had just led her UCLA Bruins to the 2019 NCAA title.
Then the Olympics called.
The native of Palmdale, California, was one of the collegians who took time off last fall to try out for Team USA, and when USA Softball named her — along with UCLA teammate Bubba Nickles and Arizona’s Dejah Mulipola — to the 15-member 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, the three players postponed what would have been their senior seasons for two of the country’s elite programs in order to participate in a pre-Olympic tour.
Little did they know that sacrifice would be paid back with a unique opportunity.
While the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 forced the Tokyo Games to be pushed back a year, USA Softball announced last week that it is sticking with the 15 players originally selected for the Olympic roster — including its three youngest selections — for the 2021 event, where softball will be contested for the first time since 2008. And with plans for a rescheduled Stand Beside Her tour still uncertain, Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola will have the opportunity to play their senior seasons in the spring before going for a gold medal with Team USA later in the summer.
“It was kind of sad to hear (the Olympics were postponed), but also at the same time, I’m kind of happy that they did postpone it, not only for just the athletes, but also just for everyone,” said Garica, who is with her parents and grandma in Palmdale. “Everyone’s health is most important. I feel like this also gives room to just train more and better prepare for the Olympics.”
Mulipola, a catcher, and utility player Nickles were similarly bummed out by the Olympic delay, but recognize the opportunity it gives them to have an extra-special 2021.
“I was so pumped,” Mulipola, who is with family in Garden Grove, California. “I honestly think I cried because I’m so happy that I get to live out my senior year the way I wanted to and with my class and with my team that I love so much. And that I also get to go to the Olympics.”
Garcia and Nickles will rejoin a Bruins team that ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time the 2020 season was abruptly canceled, and now they’ll have an opportunity to defend their 2019 title.
“Not only to get them to be able to graduate from UCLA and stick to their academic plan, but to get them back with their teammates they won a national championship with, and to have the ability to defend the title, it’s something that we have just been on a really big high for so many reasons,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez told the Los Angeles Times. “There is an energy and excitement and camaraderie with those two and what they bring to UCLA softball.”
Because of the difference in the school years for UCLA and Arizona, Nickles, a sociology major, and Garcia, a history major, actually withdrew from school after missing about four weeks of the quarter for tryouts and camps. Mulipola, meanwhile, was absent for about a week of the semester and kept in contact with her instructors as she pursues a degree in care, health and society.
All three had taken redshirts in 2020 with plans to come back and complete their eligibility in 2021. But with many things in flux due to COVID-19, all three were given the go-ahead by USA Softball to commit to playing for their college teams next spring.
Because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for athletes whose spring 2020 seasons were cut short, many of the teammates the national team players would have played with in 2020 could now be back as well.
Then, in Tokyo, they’ll be back with the group that was already preparing for 2020.
“That was awesome news to hear,” Nickles, who is with her mom and dad in Merced, California, said of USA Softball keeping the team together for 2021. “I definitely picked up when they told us that they’re willing to keep the same roster and they’re also willing to just move the Olympics to the next year. It was something that I didn't even think was possible.”
So while the trio awaits their next athletic endeavor once they are allowed to resume training with their USA Softball teammates, they are doing their best to stay in shape and keep their skills as sharp as they can.
Garcia has had a little extra concern as her dad works in maintenance and engineering at a nearby hospital. He has a strict routine once arriving home to protect his family.
“I just think that it’s really kind of incredible with all the unfortunate events that have happened,” Nickles said. “There’s a lot of blessings in disguise, too, that have happened from everything. I think that’s pretty incredible that we still get to be a part of both teams and just be a part of having all those girls on our side and so many coaches that can help us regardless of where we're at. I think that’s just so amazing that after when this is all over, it's going to feel even that much better to be together again.”