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Perfectly Imperfect: The 2000 Olympic Softball Tournament Ended In Gold, But For Team USA It Was Quite The Journey

By Karen Price | Sept. 25, 2020, 11 a.m. (ET)

Second baseman Dot Richardson #1 (far left) and US Olympic Softball Team celebrate at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 26, 2000 in New South Wales, Australia.

 

Twenty years ago, the U.S. women’s softball team won its second consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney and further cemented its reputation as the best in the world.

Midway through the preliminary games of the tournament, however, the Americans were in danger of not even making the medal round.

What stands out the most now in the minds of the players all these years later is not just winning, but how they won and pulled themselves out a slide that threatened to send them home empty-handed.

“It was a true testament of Olympic athletes and what you go through,” said pitcher Michele Smith, who won gold medals in 1996 and 2000. “A lot of the time when you’re young you think everything is going to go swimmingly, you’re going to go in there and have the best event ever, and as you look back you realize that sports are not like that, the Olympics are rarely like that and life in general is not like that. One of things that was so great about that group of women is what we overcame mid-event.”

The U.S. surged into the tournament not only as the defending Olympic champions but also with a No. 1 world ranking and a 110-game winning streak.

There were a number of factors working against the team, however.

Instead of playing in front of an adoring home crowd as it had four years earlier in Atlanta, Team USA was going into Australia, where everyone was rooting for whichever team was playing the U.S. The Americans were also facing tougher competition.

“Winning in ’96, we raised the bar and then all the other teams around the world got to the bar we raised, and we just didn’t raise it higher on our end,” said outfielder Laura Berg, the most decorated softball Olympian with three gold medals and one silver.

The pitcher’s rubber was also still at 40 feet after college programs had moved to 43 feet, and offense was tough to come by when the top contenders faced each other. After the U.S. won its first two games against Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 9-0, things changed.

It was perfectly imperfect, which is what made it so special.

Michele Smith

Team USA lost to Japan 2-1 in extra innings, ending the winning streak at 112 games. A pair of errors by veteran second baseman Dot Richardson in the top of the 11th led to Japan’s two runs, while the U.S. left 18 on base.

As stunned as the players were, that turned to disbelief when they lost the next day to China, this time 2-0 in 14 innings.

Then they lost again.

This time it was against Australia in a 13-inning affair the very next day, making it the first time the U.S. lost three games in a row in international competition.

“There was a lot of tension,” Berg said. “Also a lot of pressure. Like, we lose another game and we may not make it into the medal round. We’re ranked No. 1 in the world and all of a sudden we’re getting by by the skin of our teeth just getting into the medal round.”

Everyone was staying in the same house, and later that night they came together for a meeting.

“Dot (Richardson) had the softball in her hand and she said, ‘This is what I’m going to do to help the team win and finish the goal we came here with,’” Berg said. “She gave it to someone else and whoever had the ball had to say what they were going to do to benefit the team.”

Then, everyone had to point out something that a teammate did well.

“I’ll never forget (pitcher) Lisa Fernandez talking about how she knew when she threw the ball that it wasn’t going to drop in the outfield, and I wanted to run through a wall right then and there,” outfielder Leah O’Brien-Amico, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, said. “I was like, ‘Bring it on.’ To this day that has stood out in my life, the power of encouraging words and lifting others up.”

It worked. 

The Americans beat New Zealand to snap the losing streak, then beat Italy to get into the medal round.

Waiting for them were China, Australia and undefeated Japan, the three teams that beat them.

“Then it became a mission,” said Smith, who was tapped to start against China after pitching all 14 innings in the loss to them just days earlier. “Then it was like, ‘Alright, bring it.’”

Dot Richardson in action during the Womens Softball match against China at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 25, 2000 in Sydney, Australia.

 

Team USA beat China 3-0, and then Australia 1-0. That left only Japan for the gold medal. The Americans knew that every out, every bunt, every walk, every play was going to be important.

Japan took a 1-0 lead before the U.S. tied it, and the game went to extra innings, again. Berg remembers being angry at herself over Japan’s run, a home run off Fernandez, because she thought if she got to the fence maybe she could have caught it. Then in the bottom of the eighth, Berg was up with a runner on second and one out.

It was raining, she remembered, and Japan’s coach came out to talk to the pitcher. 

“It’s weird, it’s one of the calmest at-bats I ever had,” she said. “I look at it now and I’m more nervous now than I was in the batter’s box.”

Berg hit a fly ball toward the left fielder, and as the ball spun it shifted direction just enough to force a stumble. The outfielder dropped the ball as she fell backward and Jennifer McFalls scored.

“That left fielder that dropped the ball, she’d been making these amazing plays in front of her and just robbing us,” O’Brien-Amico said. “Absolutely you think she’s going to make that play no problem, and I think all of us were shocked when the ball dropped. Then it was a race for Jennifer to get across the plate. Everyone’s heart was pounding. I’ll never forget the celebration in the dugout. It was the best feeling.”

Smith said that with the game in extra innings there was that initial thought of, “Is that it? Did we just win?”

“It was just a massive relief after four days earlier meeting to figure out how we were going to survive,” she said.

After it was over, O’Brien-Amico remembers the tiny but vocal American crowd supporting them — consisting mostly of team members’ family and friends — and how she ran out with the flag to thank them. She also remembers several of the Japanese players walking over and congratulating them.

“I kept thinking I don’t know if I would do the same thing, but it really meant a lot,” she said. “I thought that was very humble and kind of them. I never forgot that.”

Smith remembers it pouring down rain, and everyone getting drenched in the post-game celebration.

“I was like, ‘This is fitting,” Smith said. “When you look back it’s so funny. So many people think it’s going to be so perfect and then you feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, we survived that.’ There was nothing perfect about it, except when you look at that medal. It was perfectly imperfect, which is what made it so special.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
 

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