Kelsey Christine Stewart #7 rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against Japan during their Playoff Round match at the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on Aug. 11, 2018 in Chiba, Japan.
Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.
Softball player Kelsey Stewart thought she knew what the summer of 2020 was going to look like.
Maybe not the specific details, but at least where she’d be, when and what she’d be doing.
Little did she know.
From the disappointing postponement of her sport’s return to the Olympic stage to a full team walkout in her pro league to using her platform to raise awareness of racial injustice and promote unity, Stewart has had a busy summer, even if it isn’t how she envisioned it.
“Definitely not in the way I thought,” said the 26-year-old infielder from Wichita, Kansas.
It started, of course, with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 being postponed because of COVID-19. Softball was supposed to be included in the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and the U.S. became the first team to qualify for the 2020 Games all the way back in August 2018 at the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship.
Stewart had both played on that world championship team and been named to the U.S. Olympic Team. Instead of taking part in an extensive pre-Olympic tour, however, Stewart, much like everyone, found herself with a lot of unexpected downtime.
Then, in June, softball returned.
The Texas-based Scrap Yard Fast Pitch team, for which Stewart played, scheduled a series against the USSSA Pride and beat even Major League Baseball back to the diamond.
The joy over the game being back was short-lived, however.
Stewart wasn’t at the first game, having gone home for a personal issue, so she saw the tweet from the team’s general manager that went out during the game well before her teammates. It showed a photo of the players standing during the anthem and read, “Everyone respecting the FLAG!” and tagged President Donald Trump.
Being one of just two Black players on the roster, along with Kiki Stokes, Stewart was hurt and disgusted.
She wasn’t the only one.
Blindsided by being used for political purposes and angry that the GM seemed to want to speak for them in the since-deleted tweet, the entire team walked out.
“I knew I wasn’t coming back,” Stewart said of the reaction. “Especially with what’s going on in the world, if I were going to say something it has to start in my home. I knew (going back) was something I wasn’t going to do, but I never imagined the entire team was going to walk out. I thought a couple girls wouldn’t be OK with it, but the entire team walking away was a statement and a movement in and of itself to make a change in softball.”
The players from that team joined together to start a new team, called This Is Us, which included 11 members of Team USA.
The team’s purpose, Stewart said, was to empower people to stand up for what is right, raise awareness and promote unity. Those members of Team USA not on the team were fully supportive of their efforts, she said.
“I’d been having individual conversations with my team here and there and just explaining (what was happening),” she said. “We ended up having a group Team USA call with all the coaches and all my teammates and the staff and we talked through it. Me and (fellow national team players and alumni) Natasha (Watley), Michelle (Moultrie) and Tairia (Flowers) all shared our stories. It was amazing how they didn’t know.”
Deciding to use her voice wasn’t easy, Stewart said, because as a Black athlete in a predominantly white sport, you’re often told to turn the other cheek and not let things get to you.
Speaking with the Black Team USA softball players who came before her changed that, though.
“They said, ‘We did that for too long and you have to be the generation that stands up. We’ll have your back. We’ll support you,’” recalled Stewart, who along with Moultrie will maintain their spots on the 2021 Olympic team. “I think it was one of those things where I didn’t know what the reaction would be from people but at the end of the day it was like you can’t support us on the field and not off. If you’re going to get behind me, great, and if not then it’s probably better you aren’t a fan because the color of my skin is never going to change.”
Stewart also has an action plan to help make the game of softball more available to a wider audience and provide opportunities to everyone who wants to play in her hometown of Wichita.
This summer she founded Stewie’s League, a nonprofit that will charge a one-time, nominal fee and then give young players everything they need from equipment to coaching to games.
“It will all be provided and we’ll just teach the game and give the opportunity so that someone without the money can have the same opportunity to play the game and fall in love with the game and allow it to take them anywhere they want to go,” she said.
She’s also starting a travel ball league to help promote the sport and build the level of competition in her area, and on top of all that joined Athletes Unlimited, the new professional league in which there are no coaches and no set teams with rosters changing every week.
Stewart first realized the opportunity she had in softball in eighth grade when she accompanied one of the USA Softball youth teams to New York for a tournament. No one in her family had ever been there, she said.
With everything softball has given her, Stewart said, it’s only right that she give back.
She hopes — through speaking out on social media, through the elevated platform she has as a professional and playing for Team USA, and with her nonprofits — to help change the landscape and provide more opportunities for Black girls and others moving forward.
“I want little girls going through softball to know they can be authentically themselves,” she said. “They don’t have to mask who they are to fit in. They can own who they are and love the color of their skin and love their natural hair and be themselves while being awesome at softball.”