Those who watch the Olympics may dream of achieving that pinnacle – representing your country as the best of the best in a race for gold, silver or bronze.
For most it will only be a dream, and the closest we may get is the chance to meet an Olympian.
My opportunity came last Friday, during the Beaver Dam High School Softball Alumni Dinner. The event, held to support girls softball, came together as part of weekend softball clinics featuring three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez.
The clinics were organized by Robin Schumacher, Nina Schneider Thomas, Abby Gregory and Nicole Swalby. The weekend included meet-and-greets with Fernandez, clinics for coaches, hitters, pitchers and catchers, a live auction, silent auction, basket raffles and a special lunch with players from the Challenger League.
Generous donors, volunteers and more helped make the weekend a success, and I enjoyed watching people in the community come together to support girls’ athletics. The highlight, though, was meeting Lisa Fernandez. She allowed me to wear one of her gold medals in a photograph with her.
She began playing softball at the age of 7, and played in a local children’s league at 12. Though she tried out as pitcher, a coach told her she did not have the right size or build. She went on to prove that coach wrong. She said being told she could not do something challenged her.
While playing softball as a pitcher for St. Joseph High School, her team won the California Interscholastic Federation Championship. She played for the UCLA softball team from 1990 to 1993. A four-time, first-team All-American, she led UCLA to two national titles and two runner-up finishes.
She represented the United States on three Olympic softball teams — in 1996, 2000 and 2004 — bringing home three gold medals with her teammates. She established an Olympic strikeouts record at the Sydney games and now serves as an assistant softball coach for her alma mater. In November 2013, she was inducted into the A.S.A./U.S.A. Softball National Hall of Fame, and has one of the most recognizable names in softball.
Fernandez brought her gold medals with her, and shared them with guests, reminding us that she represented us during those games. She shared stories about each of the medals. The gold from the 1996 games in Atlanta represents the past, she said. All those who came before in the sport of women’s softball, but retired before it was played in the Summer Olympics. She paid tribute to those women.
Her gold medal from the Sydney Olympics in 2000 represents teamwork. She said the team came in with a long winning streak, and then lost three games in a row and almost did not qualify for medal contention. She spoke of the way the team worked together to win.
The 2004 medal from Athens represents domination. She said the pitching mound and fence were moved back in an effort to increase offense and give other teams a shot at competing with the U.S.A. team. The results? Team U.S.A. won gold, and outscored its opponents 51-1. And Fernandez batted .545, an Olympic record.
Fernandez credits the support of her parents, good coaches and great teammates for her success. In a 2008 interview with ESPN, she said, “I had the work ethic. And I think that is one thing God blessed me with. I may not have been the most talented player in terms of strength, body type or size, but he instilled in me something you can’t coach and you can’t teach — that desire that you want to be the best you can be, and a work ethic that means you’ll do whatever it takes.”
While Fernandez offered a lot of great advice and drills for improving as a softball player, I found her life advice and encouragement of female athletes to be the most inspiring part of the weekend. She shared the importance of hard work, a competitive spirit and other lessons with the girls who attended the softball clinics. She told them it is important to surround themselves with the right people, those who support their dreams.
Perhaps one day we can live in a world where we do not need Title IX, the 1972 amendment to U.S. education public law that required equality in school athletics, so that programs for females would be given the same opportunities and resources as those offered to males.
And one day I hope the phrase, “like a girl” is no longer a slur or insult, but something said with reverence. Until then, Lisa Fernandez’s career as a player and a coach shows what female athletes can achieve through hard work, support and most importantly, believing in themselves.