The Athens 2004 gold medal-winning southpaw talked to Tokyo 2020 about the jitters of the Olympic stage, chasing pitching perfection, the disappointment of silver in Beijing and her bold decision to come out of retirement for one last tilt at the podium.
“It’s a never-ending chase of perfection,” USA Softball legend Cat Osterman, now 38, told Tokyo 2020 about her love of pitching and the decision to come out of retirement for one last hunt of Olympic gold. “I love the game of softball, but I love the art of pitching probably even more. By chasing it, something you know you can’t reach, you learn so much about yourself. How to deal with adversity and what you can succeed at.”
There’s precious little success that Osterman hasn’t achieved on a softball field. She’s the most decorated pitcher in NCAA (USA collegiate) history with three national Player of the Year awards. She’s a six-time professional all-star, a four-time all-American, and record holder for total victories, shut-outs and no-hitters at her alma mater, the University of Texas. Add the gold medal she won at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 and it’s no wonder the southpaw is considered by many to be the best pitcher to ever wind up and hurl a softball.
But amid all the triumphs there is the other side of the coin to be considered – the adversity Osterman speaks of in almost hushed tones. The sting of a disappointment 13 years in the past still lingers. And when she takes the field at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium this month, she’ll be returning, in a manner of speaking, to the site of her greatest disappointment.
Hard night in Beijing
“It was the worst nightmare of a game,” sighed Osterman, talking about the loss to Japan in the gold medal game of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. The USA, inventors of softball and pioneers on the international stage, were firm favourites having beaten the Japanese twice en route to that year’s Olympic final. As Osterman noted from her home near San Antonio Texas: “Everyone guns for us [Team USA, who’ve won all Softball gold medals save one]. We always have a target on our backs.”
She gave up two runs in a 2-1 loss that ended the USA’s undefeated run in Olympic competition – one that stretched back to 2000 and saw them outscore their opponents 57-2. “Like if anything could go wrong in a game, it all went wrong that night,” said Osterman, commanding in the circle, at 191cm, and with a huge wingspan. “Coming home with the silver [medal], we all felt like we didn’t live up to the standard.”
2019 Getty Images
Compounding the disappointment of that cool, misty night, one that sparked what Osterman calls a “depression,” was that it marked the elimination of softball from the Olympic roster. “There was the finality of not having another chance,” said Osterman, who says she had a hard time even watching the Olympic broadcasts of 2012 and 2016 on TV – the sting of defeat still alive among her and her teammates. “It stung even more… we all came home wondering what our legacy was going to be.”
Lonesome in the pitching circle
The role of pitcher is peculiar in the world of sport. There may be no lonelier position. Like a painter, the pitcher begins all the action. She sets the world in motion. She’s in a constant psychological and physical duel with the batters. There’s glory, sure. But there’s no hiding when things go wrong as they did 13 years ago at Beijing’s Fengtai Softball Field. Osterman, the starting pitcher on the night, took the weight home with her. That defeat hung heavy around her neck.
“I have to think there is a feeling of unfinished business,” said Stacey Nuveman Deniz, catcher on that silver medal-winning USA team from 2008 and twice a gold medalist (Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. “Just on a personal level for her.”
Osterman dismisses the idea of redemption. It’s a small part of her motivation, and she’s big enough to admit it. But it’s too easy a narrative for a competitor of her stature. She has nothing to prove to anyone in the world of softball.
Her decision to come out of retirement in 2018 – after three years away – created a sensation. “Most of me just felt that it’s a chance to play in the Olympics again,” said Osterman, who was more likely to be at the Tokyo 2020 Games as a coach than as a player. “I felt like I still had the ability to help the team compete for a gold medal. And it’s a young team, so if I can help their chances of getting on the podium, then I felt like I needed to do that.”
Uphill climb for a returning hero
Roads back are often harder than those freshly ploughed the first time around. But one thing Osterman has, what all of her younger teammates want, is a gold medal. “The cool thing is I can tell them all about how gruelling it gets,” admitted the pitcher who had to work out on her own and slog through an official try-out in order to rejoin the team. There was no preferential treatment despite her vaunted status. “It’s all worth it at the end of the day if you’re on the podium with a gold medal.
“I mean,” laughed Osterman who’s unlikely to be able to hit the speeds of 113km/h she used to. “You’re never going to look back and say, ‘oh man, I wish we hadn’t had to do all those shuttle runs [sprints]’ when you have a gold medal around your neck.”
2005 Getty Images
Her decision to come out of retirement wasn’t taken lightly. Osterman’s married now. She’s raising a stepdaughter. She’s started coaching at Texas State, a vocation she says has been “her dream job” since she was a girl when the other kids dreamed of being astronauts.
And then, as if in insult to her courage and fortitude, COVID-19 hit.
The Pandemic Year was 12 months Osterman couldn't spare, and hadn’t budgeted for. She had one more summer left in her arm by her own estimates – but that was last summer. By now, with or without another medal, she planned to be retired for good.
Pandemic challenges mount
“It looked like a mountain,” Osterman continued, thinking back on over a full year of lonely workouts in a local batting cage and in her driveway. “There were a few nights when I looked at my husband and I was like… it’s 13 more months. There’s no way I can do this. ‘This is not what I bargained for’.”
There are always dark nights ahead of great tasks. But they pass.
At least they did for Osterman. With a whole new year in front of her, she dealt with the circumstances. She slowed down her training. “We came up with a plan and I pulled back a little in the beginning because you can really burn out going full-tilt for a year.”
She used both her veteran player mind and her nascent coaching mind to make sure that when the time came she would be ready. “You’re so used to coming together with your team and training,” said Osterman, who laughed a bit about training on her own, her husband Joey – a golf coach at Texas State – padded up and standing in as her catcher. “I just prayed I didn’t short-hop it to him on the concrete!”
Osterman, tired of asking the question: “Am I going to keep pitching to myself forever?” joined up with Athlete’s Unlimited – an improvised mini-league and part of a larger network of sports leagues, featuring 57 of the world’s top softball players – for five weeks in a bubble in Illinois.
True to form, she was ready to go. More than ready, in fact. At age 37, Osterman, used to life’s occasional curveball, finished the season as the highest points earner.
Youngest to oldest – heroism to spare
She’s chasing that elusive and unattainable goal after all. Perfection is the target. It’s impossible. And for a human being made of imperfect flesh and bone, and pushing against the sands of time, it’s as close to the Olympic ideal of heroism as you’re likely to find.
Osterman’s memories of gold back in 2004, when she was an enthusiastic 20-year-old college student, are as fresh as the 2008 loss is raw. “I remember my first pitch [in the Olympics] and I think it went three feet wide of the plate,” laughed the pitcher, thinking back to being the youngest player in a team that demolished the opposition with seven straight wins, scoring 41 runs and surrendering zero.
2008 Getty Images
The nerves are going because it’s the Olympics and the whole globe could be turning in at right that exact moment,” she added. “The whole world. I remember the immensity of it and just shaking.”
When Osterman talks about being back in the circle, that land outside time and space with everything on the line, there’s a true love of the sport, and her part in it, that comes through. “There were times in 2019 when I rejoined the team when it felt a little lonely [in the circle],” admitted Osterman, who knows, better than most anyone, the sport’s future in Olympic competition remains uncertain. “I was just getting back to it, especially mentally… but now it feels like home again.”
Relive the greatest Olympic Moments from the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 and watch as Japan defeats the USA with a 3 to 1 victory and claims the gold medal.