Our Journey to Gold by Kelsey Stewart

By Women's National Team member: Kelsey Stewart | Oct. 12, 2018, 4:20 p.m. (ET)

August 12, 2018 – the day that has arguably been one of the most important days for the sport of softball here in the U.S. in such a long time. USA softball qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

 

It still feels absolutely unbelievable and so surreal.

 

Before I go into telling more about that day, let me take you back a little bit… The 2018 summer makes up my fifth year playing for USA Softball, which sounds like a long time, right? Well, there are two other players who have been a part of this program for eight years now. With softball out of the Olympics, USA Softball was an afterthought for so many people – but not for Valerie Arioto and Michelle Moultrie. Along with a few others, they really kept the Olympic dream alive for so many of us. They are definitely the last two people who want credit or want to be recognized, but they deserve it. Year in and year out, they put their blood, sweat and tears into this program, and at times put their lives on hold to make this dream a reality not just for themselves but for all of us as well. The hope they held out for finally happened when softball was voted back in the Olympics on August 3, 2016. After that, the real work for every team had just begun.

 

The journey for the World Championship team started on June 12, 2018 with training camp, where we finally had a chance to figure each other out. We honestly had about 13 days to learn each person on the team, along with coaches, before we had to start winning.

 

I know most people are reading this and thinking, “Thirteen Days? You’re 17 women who are ‘supposedly’ the best in the world …that should be plenty of time.” College teams have six months to prepare before season whenever a new team comes on to campus every year. I’m not telling you this to feel sorry for us, I’m just trying to explain so everyone understands exactly what this team just did this summer. It was honestly nothing short of amazing.

 

Wearing those three letters across your chest – there isn’t any room for excuses. We simply didn’t make any.

 

Fast forward to July, where we traveled to Irvine, Calif. to compete in the USA Softball International Cup. It is such a great tournament to see some international competition before the World Championship. We won the Gold against Japan in the Championship Game, highlighted by Valerie Arioto’s three homeruns in the final game. Even though we had won, we were still so far from playing our best.

 

At that point, we were about two and a half weeks out from the World Championship in Chiba, Japan. We once again went our separate ways and with only six games under our belt, were expected to compete as a complete unit just a few weeks later. 

 

I still didn’t know everyone like I felt I should. A team competes and flows at its best when you know exactly what the person is doing in front of you, behind you, to your left, to your right, and then some. You also have to be able to trust your coaching staff without a doubt. We were again just six games in.

 

On July 26, 2018, we flew from San Francisco, Calif. to Tokyo, Japan. We were very fortunate and honored to be able to stay on Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Iwakuni, Japan, which was quite the experience in itself. Commanding Officer Col Fuerst, Sergeant Major Gregory, Mayor Fukuda, and their staffs really took care of each and every one of us. We went a week before the World Championship was set to begin and trained together in hopes of putting all the puzzle pieces together. Just like that, it was time to earn our right to go to Tokyo 2020.

 

Every game, we show up and we go hard.

 

It doesn’t matter who we’re playing because it is all about us.

 

We can never control everything but what we can always control is our energy, effort, and our attitudes. Sometimes that is hard pill to swallow in international play, and it is definitely something Coach Eriksen drills into our brains. When things happened not necessarily in our favor, you wouldn’t even notice because our bounce back was unbelievable.

 

One game that sticks out was our game against Puerto Rico. A typhoon had just rolled in and it started as a light drizzle during batting practice. Then, it turned into a “Can you see? No, just put your glove in front of your face.” 

 

That whole game was about finding something deeper inside of ourselves to get through it and play through the rain. It brought out our inner kid, something I’ll never forget with that group of amazing group of women. 

 

We ended up going undefeated in bracket play, we beat Australia and ended up playing Japan in the semifinal. We won that game in extra innings, and it was such a fun game and another instance where we truly need everyone on our team.

 

Coach Eriksen did Coach Eriksen things – connecting pitchers with position players. I still haven’t figured it out, but it allowed us to utilize the depth in our lineup. I personally thought it was brilliant, and something you honestly can’t defend. 

 

Team USA advanced to the grand finale. At this point, we were waiting for the winner of Canada vs Japan.

 

I remember seeing that Japan had just won over Canada and every emotion possible came over me. Not many people get it, but that’s perfectly fine. We had just qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. USA Softball was back in the Olympics …such a long time coming.

 

I looked at Val, Michelle, Janie Reed, and Haylie McCleney. I say those names because I’ve been through every USA Softball journey with them and the tears start rolling. We really did it. All those years of listening to everyone try to pick us apart, staying positive and keeping it about US finally paid off.

 

Despite qualifying, the work was not over. The cherry on top would be a World Championship win under our belt. We earned the right to play on Sunday and that’s what we want every time.

 

I remember walking into the stadium, looking at Aubree Munro and saying, “I have National Championship vibes,” where she looked at me and said, “I’ve had them all morning.” At that moment I knew.

 

Aubree and I have won seven championships together now. We honestly just get each other. We know what each other needs and 99.99% of the time, we are always on the same page. We hadn’t even started warming up and we were on the same page. That is exactly what one of strengths was for this team. We didn’t have individuals. We had a group of 17 women who were on the same page.

 

We end up going into 10 innings with Japan. It was back and forth the entire game. We were facing Ueno, who is arguably the best pitcher in the world, outside of our USA pitchers. I’m not going to lie, she was bringing it all game. 

 

In the top of the 10th inning, Japan’s Fujita hit a two-run homerun to go up, 6-4, but I honestly wasn’t worried at all. I knew we were going to at least get two runs back because this team has a “so what?” mentality.

 

Ali Aguilar starts on second per the international tiebreaker rule. Valerie comes up and moves the runner over. Delaney Spaulding comes up and hits a bloop shot, line drive in the book, down the right field line to score Ali. Then the GOAT, Michelle Moultrie, had a base hit through the 3-4 hole. With one out, we had runners at first and third. Kasey Cooper has a good at-bat, but brought the second out. 

 

Aubree stepped up and had one of those amazing at-bats she does in high-pressure situations. On every team, you have a few players who thrive under pressure, and Aubree is one of those players. Trust me when I say, I pick her every single time. On a 3-2 count, Aubree hit a gap shot in the left center gap and scored Delaney to tie the game. The ball ended up bouncing over the fence which resulted in a ground-rule double. 

 

With runners at second and third, it was my turn. I remember after Delaney scored, she came up to me and said, “I want you up, you can, no, you will do this.”

 

 

The first pitch was a called strike. I did not agree with him so I called a timeout, not letting this umpire decide my at-bat.

 

I go over to Coach Dobson and Coach Eriksen, and let them know my thoughts. Coach Eriksen had his signature chuckle, told me it was fine and to calm down. He is one of the best at zoning you in and helping control your heartbeat. Then, as I was walking away, Coach Dobson looked me in the eyes and said, “It only takes one pitch.” And let me tell you, in moments where you just want to do well for your team, simple things that you already know seem to be the most brilliant things.

 

I go back up to the plate and swing at a ball over my head. It’s fine, I’m fine, life is fine. I still had another pitch.

 

Next pitch, which I swear was on the plate but later found out it was really far out, I hit down the third base line to score Michelle. Just like that, we were World Champions once again.

 

 

I remember Coach Tarr making sure I touched first base and then, tackling me were Haylie and Michelle. The NFL-like tackles resulted in a post-win dog pile with the entire team.

 

On August 12, 2018 USA Softball not only became back-to-back World Champions but qualified for the Olympics. The dream is now a reality for so many people.

 

 

I’m so excited that 10-year-old girls can look at us the way I looked at Laura Berg, Natasha Watley, Caitlin Lowe, and Lovie Jung, and know that they can dream like I did at that age.

 

Being part of something so much bigger than yourself is one of the most humbling things ever. Being part of USA Softball is something even more.

 

To the 16 other women and coaches I got to go to battle with this past summer, thank you for making it the hardest but most rewarding summer of my career.

 

I can’t wait to see what Team USA does next. Stay tuned. We are all very Gold-minded.

 

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This article was originally featured in the 2018 Issue III of Balls and Strikes Magazine on pages 39-41.