U.S. softball dominating again at Games, but this time it's bittersweet
BEIJING -- Stacey Nuveman finds herself taking more pictures. She lies in her bed at night with a Flip cam in one hand and keeps a video journal to chronicle the last days. Today, they humiliate and celebrate. In eight days, it will all be over for the United States softball team.
"On the bus rides, when we're riding over from the village, I find myself reminiscing every day," Nuveman says. "Just kind of thinking back to what happened yesterday, what happened this morning.
"I don't want to forget. I don't want to miss a moment."
It is cheesy, Nuveman knows, the way some of them carry on these days. Touchy-feely, almost. The United States beat Australia 3-0 on Wednesday with a no-hitter in dripping humidity, but the world didn't blink. It's supposed to be this way. The Americans have dominated the Olympics, winning all three gold medals, but they flash childlike smiles as they stand near the third-base line and wave to the crowd. Their sport won't be back in 2012 because it was voted out by the International Olympic Committee three years ago.
That has prompted an identity crisis of sorts for a group of athletes who have spent their lives training to be the best, aiming for one payoff that comes every four years. On the day Olympic softball died, some of them learned the news via a rolling ESPN ticker. Others quietly wonder whether the reason is political, whether they're being punished for being so good at something that the ringheads stopped bothering to watch.
"For us, softball is our life," pitcher Monica Abbott says. "We don't know what we're going to do without this.
"Every time I think about it, I want to start crying. It's the sport we love, and it got taken away."
Anthony Jimenez sits on a hard bleacher with a large banner in his lap. He made it the other day. In perfect, blue letters it reads "The Bustos Bunch." He can't hang it or hold it anywhere. On Tuesday, a Chinese worker politely told him to take it down, apparently, Jimenez says, because they thought it might be political.
So he hides it, but he doesn't conceal his affection for the American slugger. He's Crystl Bustos' cousin and has seen more than 100 games. Eight members of the family flew to Beijing, screaming "U-S-A," burning through digital camera discs.
He ate sea snake the other night and videotaped it for anyone in the bleachers to watch in case they don't believe him. Here, roughly 10 rows above the U.S. dugout, they're family. He sits next to the brother of pitcher Cat Osterman, who's throwing the no-hitter. Jimenez unfurls his banner, and within seconds, a woman approaches and says, "Excuse me Sorry, sorry."
He puts it away.
"It's very sad that it's ending," Jimenez says. "The other countries are getting better, they're getting closer. That's what is unfortunate. They [cut softball] and add BMX? Come on. The old athletes in Greece do you think they rode bikes?"
He pulls out a pin. It's from the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, his favorite softball memory. The Americans outscored their opponents 51-1 in those Games, an ugly gap that makes Jimenez wonder whether the women unknowingly contributed to their own demise.
But Wednesday, against the Australians, the game is temporarily interesting. It is scoreless for four innings. It is still within reach until Bustos puts it away in the sixth with a two-run homer over the right-field fence. Jimenez leaps from his seat but hangs on to the banner.
"That's what I'll miss," he yells. "The chills. That's what it's all about."
The International Softball Federation is an active bunch, and its members buzz by press row several times to see whether the media need anything. Three of them come over to chat. They almost outnumber the media who have come out to see Wednesday's game.
ISF president Don Porter eases in and wants to talk about BackSoftball. It's a campaign to put softball back in the 2016 Games program. The federation put together a slick four-page flier that says that softball participants have increased worldwide by an estimated 20 percent the past two years. The ISF has sent more than $2 million worth of equipment to 91 countries, including Jordan and other points in the Middle East.
Three years ago, Porter was knocked back by the vote that took softball out of the Olympics. Did the IOC lump it with steroids-plagued baseball? Porter doesn't really want to talk about baseball's impact on softball's fate. At the IOC's Singapore session in 2005, each Olympic sport came up for a vote for recertification. Unlike most of the team's contests, the score was close. The vote was 52-52 -- one shy of the needed majority -- and softball was gone.
"When we come to the gold-medal game next week, there's going to be a certain feeling of emptiness," Porter says. "We've had hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from little kids all over the world about their dreams of being in the Olympics. I think that probably affected me, that we let them down. That's why we've got to try to bring it back."
The Americans started the Olympics on Tuesday feeling powerful yet powerless. They beat Venezuela 11-0 in a game that was stopped after the fifth inning. As they walked off the field, they wondered -- did the lopsided game hurt softball?
"But we're competitors," Nuveman says. "At the end of the day, I'll take it right between the eyes. If that means that hurts our sport to me, that's an oxymoron. How can you be punished for being good at something? It seems like it's not what sport is all about.
"But this is where we are. We're going to go for the gold, and then we'll deal with the repercussions, quote unquote, if there are any."
They don't know what they'll do when it's over on Aug. 21. Nuveman would like all eight teams to show some sort of solidarity in the championship game, regardless who's in it. She has suggested the teams wear stickers on their helmets. She knows that will be hard to organize "when you're trying to tear each others' heads off."
But this week, she says, it might be different. In these last days, they're all in it together.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.