Team USA got gold the hard way

Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2000

SYDNEY-In the end it came down to heart, desire and a little bit of luck.

The U.S. women's softball team won the Olympic gold medal after digging themselves the deepest of holes. After losing three straight games in Olympic play, they had to win five straight to repeat as gold medalists.

They did just that, capping off their dramatic run to the title with a 2-1 victory over Japan in the rain Tuesday night. It was Japan's first loss in the tournament. The Americans scored the winning run in the 8th inning when Japan's left fielder slipped going for a ball hit over her head.

Japan took the silver medal and Australia the bronze.

"The confidence never left, but there were reflections of the nightmare that had happened," said Dot Richardson after the game. "So we had to appreciate every pitch, every out, and keep going at it."

Winning pitcher Lisa Fernandez, who like Richardson is one of 8 members of this team that also played in 1996, said both gold medals were special.

"The win in 1996 was incredible because it was the first one ever," she said. "But I actually think that this one surpasses it because of how much challenge and adversity we had to overcome. It was not easy...Everybody played a part in how this team won."

The team that has every major world title since 1983 expected to continue their dominance at the Olympics. But other teams have caught up and they stretched the United States team to the limit.

"When you talk about a struggle, this whole tournament was a struggle for me," said Fernandez as her voice began to crack with emotion. "It did not get any easier. But I felt like this team was going to fight."

After winning the first ever Olympic softball gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, the U.S. team clearly was the best in the world. Coming into the Sydney Olympics they had won 110 straight games and walked with a swagger. They won the first two games here and dreamed of repeat gold.

Then the roof caved in. First they lost to Japan, then China, then Australia, all in extra innings. The offense of the most powerful softball team in the world disappeared, at one point suffering through 39 scoreless innings.

One more loss and they probably would not have made the medal round. That's when the team dug deep inside and found what it took to win.

"Our natural abilities don't always come through, but champions find a way to win," said Fernandez. "We found a way to win and that's a true champion."

The U.S. fell behind in the fourth inning when Japanese third baseman Reika Utsugi crushed a changeup from Fernandez and hit a screamer that barely cleared the fence and the glove of Laura Berg in center field.

"That ball going over the fence should have been caught," said Berg. "I owed Lisa one for that."

She would pay off the debt in the 8th inning after catcher Stacey Nouveman drove in the tying run in the fifth with a two-out single.

Nouveman started the winning rally in the bottom of the eighth with a walk. A pop-up bunt failed to advance pinch runner Jennifer McFalls. The U.S. women thought they had won the game when Richardson ripped a line drive down the first base line, but it hit just outside the foul line. She drew a walk on the next pitch.

Up stepped Berg, a singles hitter. "Ralph told me to swing away," said Berg, "so I did."

Berg hit a shot through the rain that sent the left fielder back towards the fence. The ball hung in the air for an agonizing second, giving the fielder a chance. As she turned she appeared to slip on the wet grass, but she caught the ball over her head in her outstretched hand. As she fell on her back the ball popped out of the glove for an error, and McFalls raced home with the gold medal run.

That set off a joyous celebration that culminated with the awarding of the gold medal. The emotions continued to pour out from the U.S. team. During the playing of the national anthem, Fernandez appeared to be overcome. Later she explained what was going through her mind.

"I really thought of my father," she said after the game, her voice breaking. "My father came over from Cuba in the '60s as a political refugee, and just how hard he fought to come over and provide for his family.

"And here I was able to represent the country that has given him and my family the opportunities...And I fought the best way I know how, which is on the softball field. This is overwhelming, and it's an emotional time."

The players drew inspiration from many sources, including Tommy LaSorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and coach of the U.S. Olympic baseball team. Before the gold medal game he personally gave each player an autographed Dodgers hat and cheered them on.

"It just basically said that it's not only the best or the fastest that wins," said Richardson, "it's the athlete that wants it the most. It comes from the heart and we played with heart."

Finally, the team had the gold they thought they deserved, though winning it in the most improbably fashion.

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