College softball players bound for Beijing -- with Team Canada
Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once remarked that his nation's main exports were hockey players and cold fronts. Its main imports, according to the iconic and eminently quotable politician, were baseball players and acid rain.
Some above the 49th parallel are hoping that adding softball players to the export list will add more Olympic hardware to the incoming traffic.
Like every other team of either gender north of the border, the softball team that will represent Canada in the Olympics has a tough time measuring up to its hockey-playing peers. Though the Canadian women's hockey team dominates its sport to the extent that even one loss was news, softball is taking its last shot at its first medal in a sport that will not be part of the Olympics in 2012 and faces a decidedly uncertain future thereafter.
But at least in a flourishing landscape of college softball in the United States, Trudeau would need to add the extra category to his list of exports. As the college game has expanded from a regional specialty in Arizona, California and a few neighboring states, softball players from British Columbia to Nova Scotia have been spilling across the border. Five of Team Canada coach Lori Sippel's players in Beijing -- nearly a third of the roster -- are active Division I softball players. Many more, including former Oklahoma State star Lauren Bay Regula (sister of Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay) and former Georgia Tech star Caitlin Lever, emerged as the faces of their programs during their college careers.
No two players better represent Canada's role in the growth of the sport than current collegians Danielle Lawrie and Jennifer Salling. As two of Canada's youngest stars, they needed just three combined college seasons -- two for ace Lawrie at the University of Washington and one for shortstop Salling at the University of Oregon -- to prove themselves equal to anyone in the same Pac-10 that produced the bulk of the United States Olympic roster.
Perhaps their politeness gives them away even before their vowels emerge as an audible passport, but they are otherwise indistinguishable from their American counterparts.
It's not just the Canadian dollar that is standing tall these days.
"I've always been proud to be Canadian," Salling said. "Canada is a great country and I love it there, but playing for my country just gives that extra boost. And when I go down to America and play softball, I'm just so proud to represent Canada and play softball, the sport that I love and I've spent so much time, effort and passion for."
For the past year, that chance to represent Canada for two weeks in August meant putting just about everything else in their lives on hold. In order to train and travel with the Olympic team, all of Canada's active college players -- a list that also includes Georgia Tech's Jennifer Yee, Nebraska's Robin Mackin and UNLV's Kaleigh Rafter -- had to take a year away from school. And although Canada may be 0-3 all time against the United States in the Olympics and 0-8 against the Americans in the world championships, Team USA coach Mike Candrea isn't taking his neighbors lightly.
"I think Canada overall has improved a lot," Candrea said. "Lori has done a really nice job of getting those players to commit to more full-time training, and I think it's showing right now. They're playing with a lot more confidence, and I think their pitching staff can be very good on any given night."
That was the case three years ago at the inaugural World Cup in Oklahoma City. Lawrie, still a few weeks away from showing up for her freshman year at Washington at the time, came away with a 2-1 win against the United States, adding Canada to a short list with Japan and Australia as teams that have beaten Team USA in significant competitions in the past two decades. Little wonder Sippel is taking matters so seriously this time around.
Hitting the road can be difficult enough for college teams, especially those like Washington and Oregon, for whom weather makes it difficult to schedule many early home games. But a few extended weekends in Arizona and Nevada are nothing compared to Canada's itinerary on the scenic route to Beijing. In the past six months alone, the national team has played everywhere from Australia to Akron.
Even after leading her team to within a game of the final series at the Women's College World Series in 2007, Lawrie found herself experiencing a new level of intensity.
"It sounds funny saying this, but this is like my job," Lawrie said. "When you go to college, it's like you're getting paid to go to school and it's fun, but when you're here, it's serious business. There's no messing around; you're dedicating yourself to this team. No matter what you do, you've got to know everyone out there, with this team and other teams, is working harder than you, and that kind of brings your play up a little bit."
As a freshman the season before her World Series heroics, Lawrie dueled former Texas ace Cat Osterman almost to a standstill before the Horns edged out Washington in an NCAA tournament super regional. But it was her performance as a sophomore in the World Series -- beginning with a no-hitter in her first start -- that fully put her on the map. And after sitting out a redshirt season her first year on campus, Salling broke loose with one of the all-time great freshman offensive performances in 2007, hitting .481 with 14 home runs and 73 RBIs.
Even Candrea opted to intentionally walk her three times in one two-game set.
Putting all of that on hold, all the while knowing that things in Seattle and Eugene wouldn't stand still while they were gone, was a necessary sacrifice.
"At the beginning, it was [difficult]," Lawrie said. "And then I'm looking at the big picture, and I'm going, 'OK, this is the Olympics.' I'm going to get my shot the next two years to go and do what I do with that, but I've got to realize this is the Olympics coming up. I thought about it in the fall, but other than that, I didn't think about it."
After all, without a change in International Olympic Committee policy, the 2008 Olympics may really be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for softball players the world around. And that makes one year seem like a pretty fair trade-off for two weeks in August.
"It's different not going to school, and watching college softball on TV and stuff," Salling said. "It definitely makes you miss it, but I have to always, in the back of my head, I have to remember what I'm missing it for. And I'm missing it for a great cause and all these wonderful people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that all softball players dream of doing, and I'm living a dream right now that not too many people get to do."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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