For most athletes heading to the Olympic Games Sydney 2000, visiting Australia was a chance to meet a local population with an international reputation for a warm, friendly welcome. For pitcher Lisa Fernandez and the United States softball team, however, the land Down Under was considered ‘enemy territory’.
“Australia were our biggest competitors,” said Fernandez, remembering the rivalry with relish. “At Atlanta 1996, where we’d won the gold medal, they had beaten us in the round robin. I had given up a home run as a pitcher and they’d won. But then we beat them later, in the pool battle, and got the gold.
“The next November, I had received a postcard from the player who had hit the home run off me. It was a picture of her being held up by her teammates, and it said: ‘See you in Japan in 1998’. This was a reference to the next world championships.
“I’m fairly competitive, so this was a rub. It was emotional. It was a jab. The rivalry intensified to a whole new level, all because of a personal postcard. In the end, we beat Australia to the gold medal at that world championship. But what is to follow? The Olympics, in Australia. Number one and two in the world, in their homeland. For the Olympics. The stage couldn’t have been bigger.”
Fernandez was the game’s superstar. At Atlanta 1996, she had set the Olympic strikeout record (“as a pitcher you want to make a place in history”): she was the Simone Biles or Serena Williams of the mound. And she topped the billing at a sporting contest that unfolded like an implausible sports movie.
Going into Sydney, the US team were beyond hot favourites: they were coasting on a 110-game winning streak. But when they got to Australia, the wheels came off. After beating Cuba and Canada, the USA lost to Japan, China and, finally – in front of a huge, partisan Aussie crowd – the home team.
“There were bad vibes,” Fernandez said. “We were one defeat from going out of the tournament.” A crucial meeting was held, at which the team cleared the air and reset their goals.
“We had to get back into the mindset that we needed to do whatever it takes to win,” she said. “Whether you hit 500 for the tournament or 100, made a sacrifice bunt, a diving play – whatever it takes, for the team. There is no ‘I’ in team and we had to get back to the core of playing for each other.
“At the meeting, we refocused. We had to stress the good things in our team, not the negative. We said, ‘We are still here, and we need to come out and enforce. Forget about the gold, we need to give ourselves the opportunity to just fight for it’. And we did.
“I’m so proud of that team. It’s not easy to have that mindset switch, in the middle of the competition. But we knocked teams off, and then we went again against the teams that had beaten us: Japan, Australia, China. It was intense, to say the least. Especially beating Australia. That was the lion’s den. You know it got loud, it was competition at its highest. But the resilience of that team came through. To lose three in a row and then come back, for me, that was an impressive feat.”
Fernandez shone throughout, and her star rose further. A brilliant collegiate player for UCLA, she was one of the few softball players who made a professional living from the game and through endorsements, with a range of Lisa Fernandez bats and mitts available. It was all made possible by her genius as a pitcher, although the humble Californian, now 49, believes she also benefitted from good luck.
“I was born at the right time, because softball only came on to the Olympic programme for 1996, and of course it went back off again in 2012, so a lot of players missed out,” she said. “And I was blessed to take part in Atlanta, for the 100-year anniversary, on home soil. I never thought I’d be an Olympian growing up, but then this door of opportunity opened up to me. And when you become an Olympic sport, it brings real credibility and support and reputation. It brings the fans and the media, it takes your sport to another level.
“So Atlanta was amazing. We played in front of 10,000 people, we were on TV, we went to the White House and met the president. We met the Dream Team and other Olympians, and they treated us like equals. On the streets before the games, people were shouting good luck to us. You are representing a whole country, so Atlanta gave us a mind-boggling sense of accomplishment. We were catapulted into the limelight.”
After Sydney, meanwhile, Fernandez had been considering retirement – until another perceived provocation convinced her to keep going for a historic third successive gold. “For Athens 2004, the organisers made some adjustments to the sport,” she said. “They moved the fences back 25ft, they moved the mound back 3ft and they brought in a more lively ball. It was all done to try and minimise the dominance of the US. It gave me motivation not to retire. It was another jab at us, thinking they could change the outcome. Maybe I took it personally. I look for motivation in places like that. So we came to Athens looking to prove our dominance, and we did.”
Fernandez, these days a softball coach at UCLA, was disappointed to see the sport dropped for London 2012, and delighted when it was reinstated for Tokyo 2020. “So many people worked so hard to get it back on the programme,” she said. “We fought. We elevated softball collegiately. The US and Japan went out to other countries and developed it. Our sport has shown resiliency. It has a worldwide base.”
She is understandably pumped with enthusiasm for how Tokyo 2020 might pan out. “Why should people watch this sport?” she said. “Because of the quickness and the skill of the athletes. Hitting a round object with a round object is difficult. The running, the throwing, the reaction times, the competitiveness. It is exciting and fun. Every play matters, and there is no bigger stage than the Olympics.”
As for picking a winner, that is also tough. “It’s going to be really close. Japan could be favourites, but there’s also China, Canada, Mexico – and the US and Australia, of course.” In other words, nobody will need any extra motivation – so do not send any postcards.