Commentary

Fernandez was a hit for UCLA and USA softball

Updated: October 6, 2008, 3:22 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Few female athletes have played softball better than Lisa Fernandez.

The former UCLA pitcher and third baseman won two national championships with the Bruins and three gold medals -- in 1996, 2000 and 2004 -- as part of the U.S. Olympic team. At the Athens Games in 2004, the team went 9-0 and outscored its opponents 51-1. Fernandez batted .545, an Olympic record.

[+] EnlargeLisa Fernandez
UCLA AthleticsLisa Fernandez is in her 10th season as a full-time UCLA assistant coach -- a position she held from 1997 to 1999 before becoming a volunteer assistant from 2000 to 2004.

She began playing softball at an early age in Lakewood, Calif., where her parents, Antonio and Emilia Fernandez, also played the sport. Her father had played semipro baseball in his native Cuba before defecting to the United States in the early 1960s. Her mother, who played on weekends, was born in Puerto Rico.

As a young player, Fernandez said, she often was told she did not have the right build or enough natural ability to go far in the sport. Also at that time, she said, young Hispanic women were encouraged by their families to skip sports to concentrate on finding a husband and raising children.

Fernandez was different.

Buoyed by the support of her parents, she kept playing. Along the way, Fernandez developed a brutal workout routine, became a fierce competitor and acquired that rare ability to perform better under pressure. Those attributes, she says, drove her to the top of her profession.

In a career filled with stellar achievements, Fernandez's biggest disappointment likely came in March, when she was left off the U.S. Olympic team after practicing with the squad all winter. Japan eventually upset the U.S. in the gold-medal game in Beijing. Ironically, it's partly because of the success of Fernandez and her teammates at the three previous Olympics that the sport will not be played at the 2012 Games in London.

Fernandez is now in her second stint as a full-time assistant coach with the Bruins. She also travels as part of the fledging Profastpitch X-treme Tour, which strives to keep former Olympians and college players in the game while promoting the sport to amateurs and young players.

Fernandez, 37, lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her husband, Michael Lujan, and 2-year-old son, Antonio. When she's not spending time with her family, playing ball or coaching, you'll find her on the golf course, where she maintains a single-digit handicap.

ESPN.com caught up with Fernandez during a recent telephone conversation.

During your playing days, you had a legendary workout routine in which you took off only for your birthday and Christmas. How has that changed now that you're retired, a mother and doing other things?

[+] EnlargeLisa Fernandez
Doug Hoke/Getty ImagesFernandez played at UCLA from 1990 to 1993. She's now a member of the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame.

It's changed quite a bit. Now, I'm in a different place. I'm no longer on the national scene. I have a 2-year-old child, and my priorities have changed. I understand more now than I ever did as a player about being balanced. Growing up, my life revolved around playing the game. I enjoyed the game, I played the game and I lived it to the fullest. I literally left no stone unturned. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Any athlete at the top of his or her game is focused 100 percent on what he or she does. I always felt that, as an athlete, I held the responsibility of whether our team won or lost. Especially, being a pitcher, you control a lot of the game. I can honestly say there wasn't a day when I didn't wake up and think, "Am I doing everything I can to make sure we're going to win that ballgame?" Looking back, I realize there's a lot of pressure and responsibility in wanting to be the best you can be. I was willing to handle that responsibility and take it head-on because 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.

When you were left off the Olympic team, catcher Stacy Nuveman said it was like Michael Jordan's being cut from the basketball team. Your thoughts on not being able to play?

It was difficult for me. I had sacrificed to be a part of it. I had talked with the coaching staff about their needing leadership on the team. I knew I could contribute physically, but more important mentally and desire-wise and experience-wise. So when I was not placed on the team, obviously it was a big blow. I was not told until five minutes before the team was being announced. But it happened for a reason. Things are going in a different direction.

Did you watch the team play in Beijing?

I watched the majority of the games, but it definitely was not easy.

Could you have made a difference?

You always know and believe you can make a difference. Experience goes a long way. There's nothing like being there and, more important, knowing what it takes to be there. There's a big difference between getting it done Monday through Saturday, but can you get it done on Sunday, championship day? If you're any kind of athlete, you think you can make a difference. I can't guarantee [it], but I think I could have helped.

Your father played semipro ball in Cuba. What sort of influence did he have on your career?

I remember being very young, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and I was short and stocky and fairly well-built, and he'd tap my legs and say, "You're going to be strong." He was very encouraging about my build and my size. It was never a problem. He encouraged me to be who I was. And that was different in that generation for a Hispanic father to encourage his daughter to play sports. In 1996, he asked me if he could take my [gold] medal, my bat and my poster that had my name on it to show some of his friends. He told them, "This is why my daughter still plays this game." My dad broke the Hispanic stereotype of expecting his daughter to be married and raising a family by the time I was 20.

[+] EnlargeLisa Fernandez
JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty ImagesFernandez, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, says she was disappointed she wasn't selected to go to Beijing for the Olympics this year, but she says the decision happened for a reason.

What role has your heritage played in shaping your career and your life?

I grew up always wanting to make people proud of me. I knew early on that I had a certain gift to play this game and a certain mentality that would take me far. And I wanted to make sure I represented not only female athletes but Hispanic athletes, so I took a lot of pride in being able to do that. Especially for my father and all that he sacrificed, coming over [from Cuba] with nothing and taking the chances and the risks that he did.

You were one of the best who played your sport, which puts you in a rare group of athletes. Now that you're retired from serious competition, what's it like to reflect on your achievements?

I think it's really cool. It's just interesting because when I look at myself in the mirror, I truly don't see anything different from anybody else. I was told by people I was too short or didn't have the right build, so I decided I would prove to the world that not only could I pitch but I was going to hit. Now, when I look back at my career, it's incredible what I was able to accomplish. I feel like I did things the right way, and because of doing things the right way, I was very fortunate. The ball always seemed to land in the right spot. Of course, part of doing things the right way is surrounding yourself with the right people and being willing to not necessarily assume the role of being No. 1. I had some incredible athletes around me.

No doubt there are women, Latina and otherwise, playing the game today who were inspired by your accomplishments. What does it mean to you to know you've had that sort of influence on other athletes?

It's overwhelming. I definitely accept the role of being a role model. I take a lot of pride in that. It keeps me going every day. I welcome that challenge and responsibility. Once again, I look at myself and see a normal person who happens to have accomplished some things. I might have a parent come up to me and say, "You just don't realize what you've done for my child or my family." It's amazing how much influence you can have doing good for somebody else. My view is, I owe it to this game and I owe it to the people who allowed me to be put in this situation. It's my job.

Like a number of accomplished athletes, you achieved a lot at a young age, then had to move on to something else. Talk about the challenges that athletes like yourself face as you move on to new careers.

I think that's going to be interesting. No. 1 is my son. I realize the responsibility I have in being a role model for him. He might never pick up a baseball bat, but whatever path he chooses, I want to be sure to be there for him. And I'm now coaching [softball] at UCLA. It's something that I love to do.

What's it like working with players who are not at your level of ability but whom you hope to help reach their potential?

That's interesting because a lot of the players think the game came so easily to me. But people who know me know how hard it was and the effort it took. When I played at UCLA, I was surrounded by great players, and that allowed me time to develop. So I realize the ups and downs that come with the game. You just want to make sure your downs are less and that your peaks are long, that when you take a dip you come right back up again. And that's the thing I try to get them to understand. I know what it's like to be in their shoes.

How's your golf game?

It's pretty good. It was a little bit better when I played a lot more. I'm able to shoot in the 70s. The game is fun. I love the mental part of it and, obviously, to be able to execute physically. It's right up my alley because repetition plays a big part in golf.

How long have you been playing?

Six years. But I only played half of each year [because of softball].

Do you think you could handle Lorena Ochoa?

[Laughs] Probably not. Drive-for-drive, I could handle her.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.