Softball

USA softball stars: It's Olympic redemption time

Cat Osterman, Haylie McCleney and Dejah Mulipola explain in an interview with Olympic Channel how they plan to win Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020

By Ken Browne ·

It's the 21st of August 2008 and the softball world is in shock.

The Japanese women's team dances around the FengTai Softball field in delight, Team USA watches them, stunned.

Japan have won the gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Pitching sensation Yukiko Ueno has had the game of her life, leading her team to a historic 3-1 victory, and she's hoisted aloft on the shoulders of her team, the Japanese fans ecstatic in the stands.

No-one thought it possible that Japan could win, the United States had won all three previous gold medals, at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004.

And they took a 22-game winning streak into the 2008 final, but the dream run had come to an end, and the tears started to flow.

Athens 2004 gold medallist Cat Osterman stands in the dugout with her hands on her head in disbelief.

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The loss is all the more painful for the U.S. as softball will not be played at London 2012 or Rio 2016.

"There was a sense of sadness and grief because that was going to be it," said star pitcher Monica Abbott afterwards.

Now 12 years later with softball back at Tokyo 2020, a 37-year-old Osterman has come out of retirement to take care of "unfinished business" with Abbott and a hungry new-gen Team USA that is "counting down the days" to a shot at redemption.

Japan's golden generation won the 2012 and the 2014 World Championships - beating the USA in both finals - but since then the U.S. have rediscovered that world-beating edge.

In 2016 and 2018 the U.S. beat Japan in both Worlds finals to claim back the international crown and once again become the dominant force in world softball.

And what better stage for Olympic redemption than Japan's own back yard at Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

Osterman, with young guns Haylie McCleney and Dejah Mulipola spoke to Olympic Channel to tell us how they plan to win the first Olympic softball gold medals in 12 years.

JPN v USA (Gold Medal Match) - Softball | Beijing 2008

Japan beat USA for the gold medal at Beijing 2008.

USA Softball Tokyo 2020 Redemption

"I did not come out of retirement just to say I played in a third Olympics," says Cat Osterman.

The four-time all-American and double Olympic medallist will be 38 at the Tokyo Games, but she still feels she has what it takes to put the USA back on top.

"I just felt like I was able to help another generation win a gold medal and so that is.. that's the ultimate goal."

"Is there a little bit of redemption? Sure, I would love to beat Japan..." - Cat Osterman

Osterman admits that redemption, if not revenge, against Japan for snapping their streak at Beijing 2008 is a priority.

"Is there a little bit of redemption? Sure, I would love to beat Japan and just have the feeling of... just a little bit but that wasn't the primary focus."

"I just felt like if could help this younger group of athletes win a gold medal then I needed to come do my job and help them win a gold medal."

Osterman is putting the team first, but a second gold medal would be the perfect ending to a stellar career for her too.

"Not that I'm not going to be excited to win one as well, I will be, but there's a large generation of softball players who didn't get to compete in the Olympics."

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Monica Abbott: Pitching and so much more

Another player on the field that day watching Japan celebrate in Beijing was star pitcher Monica Abbott.

Abbott threw the last ever Olympic pitch for the U.S., and she and Osterman are the only two players left standing on the Tokyo 2020 roster from 2008.

But Abbott is a not-so-secret weapon for her team.

A year after Beijing, in 2009, Abbott was approached by the Toyota Motor Corporation to play pro ball in Japan, and has played seasons in both the U.S. and in Japan ever since.

34-year-old Abbott is now a five-time Japan Softball League Champion and a valuable asset to her country when it comes to the Olympics.

New generation

Hitter and outfielder Haylie McCleney is one of the new generation that has helped restore that winning feeling to the -'States softball.

At 25 she's a dynamic double world champion fizzing with energy and ambition.

"I'm a high-energy person," McCleney tells us in a proud Alabaman accent, "always on level 10, always wanting to get after it and have fun in whatever it is that I do."

McCleney appreciates that Abbot can be the U.S.' enigma machine at the Olympics in Japan.

"Monica, just like Cat [Osterman], has a ton of experience when it comes to international ball but even more so with playing in Japan, knowing their culture, how they approach the game, she obviously gets to play against almost every single one of the Japanese national team members every year so that softball IQ that Monica has is extremely valuable."

Hitting catcher Dejah Mulipola was 10 when the U.S. had to settle for silver in Beijing.

Her Olympic dream started when the team "stopped on tour near my house and I came up in my all-star jacket and had all of the USA players that I really liked sign it."

Abbot and Osterman's names are still on that jacket.

"Now the role's switched and I'm signing little girl's shirts and it's cool that 12 years later I'm in their shoes, it's come full circle definitely!"

Mulipola agrees with McCleney that having their two experiences stars in the mix is a big advantage:

"I mean we are just as good as any other team out there, but the reassurance that they've been there and done that and that we can look to them in those moments of struggle is kind of the biggest thing."

Abbot has won three World Championships and five World Cups in a sparkling career.

"We ask Monica all the same things that we ask Cat,' continues McCleney, "just because we - we don't know what's going on right, this is the first time we've ever played in the Olympics."

"To have Monica there definitely provides an interesting perspective and she's always willing to share and she's a great teammate just like Cat."

But McCleney has other things on her mind, like planning for a wedding during the coronavirus lockdown.

Team USA in coronavirus shutdown

So how have the players coped in quarantine?

"It's hard because we don't know what the next 24 hours holds, let alone the next year," reflects McCleney.

"The biggest thing I lean back on is my just my faith and the fact that we're not in control of the situation right now," says Osterman.

Munipola is recruiting her brothers and sisters to stay active, and McCleney has been getting deeper into prayer, meditation, and positive visualisation.

"For me one of the things I've explored with this little time off is just diving a bit more into prayer, meditation," she says.

"In that meditative process is when I would envision getting a game-winning hit or making a home-run robbing catch or something like that so that's definitely a part of it.

"I envision getting a game-winning hit or making a home-run robbing catch" - Haylie McCleney

"And that's just another tool in the toolbox for us to continue to stay ready and to try and get better with what we got in this crazy crazy, unprecedented time."

But the hardest thing for this tight-knit group is being away from each other.

"Usually when I'm not with USA I'm with my college teammates," says Dejah Munipola.

"So I'm always bouncing around between teammates and I always have someone with me so it's definitely been a game changer to be on my own, be at home and not have Haylie yelling at me:

'Hey! Ten more,' 'pump it up,' let's go, let's go,' and flexing on me!"

The feeling is mutual.

"Being away from them has been tough," says Haylie.

"Because that's where I get all of the energy from, they're the ones that make me want to get better. We all have that bond together, all 18 of us."

When it's suggested that Haylie could lead online group fitness sessions during social isolation, she jumps at the idea:

"I'm gonna start, Cat and Dejah will be first tomorrow at 6am."

"Love to!" laughs Cat.

But bonds like these are built in big tournaments, and the team will need to gel before the Olympics.

The key: USA Softball Pre-Olympic training

Having lost out on the chance to work together in 2020 with the cancellation of major tournaments and the national Stand Beside Her Tour presented by Major League Baseball (MLB), in means that the weeks before the Olympics will be crucial.

Cat's experience at two Olympic Games shines through again as her younger teammates listen in.

"Once we get over to the country the Olympics is in and we're over there for two or three weeks prior to the Games, we're able to really refine our skills and be in tip-top shape," she says.

"When you have stability it allows you to even amplify that more. There's not really a big trigger technique, it's just about perspective."

"Having been through two quads of Olympic experience and being older and having coached for 12 years I think I can bring a different perspective."

Softball opens the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Another new perspective for softball, having missed out on the last two Games, is that it has the honour of being the first sport to be played at the Olympics in 2021.

It's something the players are excited about.

"What a cool opportunity," says Haylie.

"For our sport to potentially, after this whole coronavirus pandemic across the world, to have softball be the first sport that's going to open it up [The Olympics] and really show people like, hey, the world's back."

"What a freaking opportunity, that's going to be great, we don't know exactly when that's going to be but I can't wait for it."

"Counting down the days"

The team is staying focused for that big day.

"Been waiting all my life, 420 days ain't a thing," posted Mulipola when the new dates for Tokyo were announced.

"I'm counting down the days," revs McCleney, "I don't know how many days until it's going to happen now but I'm counting down the days."

Haylie McCleney has brought some fire to the USA Softball setup, and her intensity is contagious.

"I can guarantee you that I'll be turned up and ready to go whenever it is we play. If they have us play in a parking lot, I'll play in a parking lot."

The clock may have been reset, but it is already ticking down to USA Softball's shot at Olympic redemption.