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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

American redemption or a Japanese swansong?

13 years after a fateful Beijing morning changed their lives in contrasting ways, the American Osterman and the Japanese Ueno will go head to head again in a battle between two softball powerhouses. The American looking for redemption, the Japanese looking for a perfect swansong.

Written by Sandip G |
July 25, 2021 5:11:18 pm
Yukiko UenoJapan's Yukiko Ueno (17) pitches against Canada in a softball game in Yokohama Baseball Stadium, at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo)

The breezy morning in Beijing, 13 years ago, is still fresh in Yukiko Ueno’s mind. The Japanese pitcher, now 39, produced the finest performance of her career to orchestrate an upset over defending champions USA and clinch an Olympic gold. “Whenever I feel short of motivation, I turn back to that day, whenever I am facing setbacks, I turn back to the day. It changed my life forever,” she recently told Japan Times.

She had a monster playoff performance, she threw 413 pitches over three games in two days, in an IPL-style play-off, eliminator and final. Theirs was an intense rivalry between two softball powerhouses. Japan had the richest softball league in the world, though the US had hoarded gold medals in every Olympics since the sport’s inception at the Atlanta Games in 1996. She returned to a hero’s welcome, grabbed accolades and the profile of the sport expanded in Japan. “It meant, we started getting enough money to become full-time professionals, to not worry about livelihood,” she said, as she built on the success, became a ubiquitous face in commercials, and became something of softball’s Ninja lady.

The same morning holds vastly different memories for Cat Osterman. She was USA’s hero, considered an all-time best, till the final. In the final, though, she erred. It was not a game she played badly, she struck out nine Japanese batters in five innings, but gave up two vital runs, the first she had conceded in the entire campaign. She was devastated, her career never hit the high notes that it was expected and she retired in 2015.

But those memories kept haunting her. “I used to think, how I’d take away two pitches if I could—the double and the home run. It meant a lot to all of us,” she recently told The Oklahoman. It nipped a softball boom of sorts in the US. “Softball was catching up. We were three-time Olympic champions, on a 20-match unbeaten streak, a lot of kids were playing it, and then boom. Everything was over. It was almost like ending your career on a sour note,” she had said.

Her redemption song seemed inconceivable, but for softball making a comeback in the Tokyo Games. Initially, she was hesitant, she had quit the game three years ago, got married, and was raising a family. She had not disconnected herself from the game, though, and was the pitching coach of Texas’s college team.

But after persuasion from her former teammate Kelly Kretschman, who relived the angsty moments after the final in a teary phone call, she announced her comeback, at 36. “I kind of just felt like, you know, I was given a chance, not necessarily for the Cinderella story, but just to be able to come back and be the veteran that I had when I was 21 for my first Olympics,” she told athletic.com.

She steeled her mind, but the body was rebelling. She was rusty and rickety, her fabled accuracy went off-kilter and there were times when she wondered whether she should retract her decision. She felt like her elbows were coming off the joints.

But her husband Joey Ashley, a golf coach, had a solution. To start her day by playing golf, as it not only relaxes her mind but eases up the stiff shoulders and biceps. Intense running and cycling followed. He also tagged along with their daughter to her training sessions, so that there is added motivation. “Being able to show her what it looks like to work hard for your dreams, and what it looks like to work hard day in and day out — that was a big part of it,” she said.

By mid-2019 she rekindled both her power and accuracy and strolled through the trials. Then the pandemic happened. Uncertainty clutched. She would be a year older—38 by the time the Olympics rolled out—or if it were scrapped forever, she would have to forsake her dreams again. “But I just kept working harder and ensured that I was in even better shape than I was in 2019.”

It also enabled her to compete in the Athletes Unlimited softball league in August, wherein she topped the individual player ranking. Both her curveball and drop-ball have regained their venom. Then by July last year, the schedule was listed out, and all she looked for was if they were encountering Japan. It was on June 26. She marked the date.

The battle would not only be about revenge, but also the duel of one-upmanship between two of the finest pitchers of the game. Osterman and Ueno. The latter is one of the quickest in the world, capable of flipping the ball at 128 kmh; she is not just pace alone. She has finessed every possible variety, the riseballs, curveballs, chopballs and changeups. Osterman relies more on variations, angles and smarts than pace. She barely clocks upwards of 70 kmh, a spinner as opposed to a medium-pacer, but is incredibly difficult to hit away. The movement, bend and curve, she generates with an imperceptible change of grip and seam position, is often unfathomable for hitters. Being a left-hander (with a quick-arm action) adds another deadly dimension to her game too.

Both though have their eyes trained on winning the war than the battle. A gold for repudiation, and a gold for redemption. Their mornings in Tokyo will be intertwined with that morning in Beijing, 13 years ago.

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