Lisa Fernandez was the ace pitcher on all three of the United States' gold medal-winning softball teams in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and even hit a tournament-record .545 at the Athens Games. Will she be the first and last American Olympic softball champion?
One week before the International Olympic Committee is set to vote on the inclusion of softball for the 2020 Summer Games, arguably the sport’s greatest player was honored with the Phoenix Mercury’s Woman of Inspiration Award.
The sport was dropped from the Olympic roster following Japan’s gold medal in 2008, ending a four-Olympiad run. Conjoined with baseball, softball competes with squash and wrestling for one spot in the 2020 Games, a vote to be decided Sept. 8 in Buenos Aires, a day after the IOC will award the event to either Tokyo, Madrid or Istanbul. Wrestling will take place at the 2016 Rio games, but is slated for termination afterwards, depending on this vote.
“It’s difficult because of wrestling,” Fernandez said Saturday at US Airways Center. “You are talking about a sport that was in the games when it began. I hope softball is in there, but really it’s in the hands of the voting group. I think softball has done a tremendous job in working with baseball to rectify some of the issues that promoted us being taken out. We were never exactly told why we were being taken out. Whether it was the dominance of softball, or the scheduling of Major League Baseball, or the expense of the venue, but I think we’ve addressed a lot of those issues to try and figure out a way.
“We’re going to have to keep our fingers crossed and hope, and if we don’t, the fight won’t stop.”
She mentioned softball wasn’t in the bottom of attendance or participation, and in fact was in the top 10 for attendance. Representatives from USA Softball have advocated with those from abroad for resubmittal, and Fernandez said she has made herself as available as possible to answer questions. While the game becomes more global, it could be used as an exhibition sport, by choice of the host country – a bonus if Tokyo gets the Games.
PLAYING AND COACHING AT UCLA
Fernandez has served as an assistant coach for 15 seasons with UCLA in some capacity and has been full time since 2009, following her playing career. In that span, the team has won four national championships: three under Sue Enquist (1999, 2003 and 2004), and one under Kelly Inouye-Perez (2010) who just finished her seventh season.
While pitching for the Bruins, Fernandez went 93-7 with 784 strikeouts and a 0.22 ERA, winning the WCWS in 1990 and 1992 and falling in the final to Arizona in 1991 and 1993. She also hit .382 for her career. In her junior year of 1992, she went 29-0 with a 0.14 ERA.
Next season, UCLA will hope to rebound from a 40-20 2013, in which it was 10-14 in the Pacific-12 and lost in the Regional round to UAB.
“I love the game,” she said of coaching. “Being the head coach, you love the game, but there are other factors you have to consider. I want to love the game, I want to be in the field with the kids. Being a head coach you have to worry about budgeting, networking, meetings, and I don’t want to do that. I want to get back to the core of loving the game. Also, I have a family, and I am blessed to have great support from Kelly at UCLA. If the right door opens up, I’d like to be a head coach some day, I just haven’t found that right door yet.”
Fernandez was also no stranger to the basketball court at Westwood, playing under Billie Moore and Kathy Olivier in the same lineup as Natalie Williams, another two-sport star (volleyball).
“I didn’t want to take away from softball, but I wasn’t ready to retire from basketball,” Fernandez said. “My first year I redshirted, but I knew softball was my priority. There was word softball could be an Olympic sport, and when I heard that, I started playing tentatively, and you can’t play basketball tentatively or you’re going to get hurt. One reach in a finger, and I could jam it, and my pitching career would be over.”
A WOMAN OF INSPIRATION
It was all in the journey that brought her to the spotlight Saturday night, being presented the prestigious award at halfcourt from fellow UCLA alumna Ann Meyers Drysdale. During her presentation, it was also mentioned that University of Arizona and former Olympic coach Mike Candrea called her “the best to ever play the game.”
“It’s emotional,” Fernandez said, “when I think about the past, the people who have won it- Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Billie Jean King, Robin Roberts…. Really? You talk about pioneers in what they have been able to do. They retired and sacrificed their lives to help building their sport. To be considered in that same group of people, what an honor.
“I am so blessed being honored for what I just love to do. There’s no greater feeling than to be honored for just being who you are.”
The IOC’s announcement of the 2020 host city will be at 5 p.m. Saturday Buenos Aires time- or 1 p.m. on the West Coast.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Having attended both wrestling and softball at the Olympics and seeing the enjoyment on the faces of the fans and players, there could not be a bigger lose-lose situation for the IOC. Baseball players can grow up dreaming about going to the World Series, but for a softball player, the pinnacle of her career ends at the WCWS in Oklahoma City. Covering some of the great athletes in softball, like Dallas Escobedo and Amber Freeman at Arizona State, it’s heartbreaking to know that if they were just a tad older, they could have represented their country in the Olympics. Last summer in London, fans were robbed of seeing pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman in their primes. An entire generation is being lost on the world’s grandest stage, and whether the pendulum in Argentina opts for softball or wrestling, it will be a sad day for the sports world.