- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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BEIJING -- When U.S. softball player Jessica Mendoza woke up Thursday morning, she had more on her mind than that evening's gold-medal game against Japan. She was thinking about the future of her sport.
"No one on the team wanted to talk about it and I was getting frustrated," Mendoza said from her Beijing hotel room Thursday night. "I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to do something with the other teams to make a statement."
Mendoza had been thinking about a way to join together with the other medal-winning teams and had finally devised a plan to make a statement to the IOC after the medal ceremony. But she needed the help of the Japanese and Australian teams to pull it off.
"We never talk to the other teams -- ever," Mendoza said. But when she spotted the Australian team in the lunchroom Thursday afternoon, she broke that unspoken rule of intersquad silence. "I walked up to Stacey Porter, their main hitter, and said, 'Can I talk to you a second?'" Mendoza said. "She was shocked."
Mendoza told Porter of her plan to gather members of the three medal teams after the game and lay softballs in the shape of "2016" on the field.
"I told her, 'I know you guys had a tough loss, and I don't know what's going to happen in our game tonight, but we need to unite and create a message.'" To Mendoza's surprise, Porter agreed. Then, she reached out and gave her a hug. "It was crazy," Mendoza said. "It was that moment I realized, no matter what happened, I wanted to do this after the game."
But an idea is one thing when it's simply that: an idea. It becomes something entirely different when you're standing on the medal podium with the wrong color medal hanging around your neck.
"Every time I needed to get through a workout or a run, I closed my eyes and imagined a gold medal and that has driven me for the last four years," Mendoza said. "To have that not happen, I am heartbroken. I feel exhausted. It's been a rough day."
But as Mendoza stood on the podium holding hands with her teammates and thinking about the millions of girls who may never have the opportunity to wear an Olympic medal of any color, she decided her plan was more important than her grief.
"It was hard to go up to Australia and Japan after the game and say, 'Hey, can we do something together, united? Sure, we were just feeling this negativity toward each other, but let's do something positive.'
"But this is not about America. It's not about the eight teams that are here. This game is so much bigger than us. And it was so much more important for us to do this with a loss than after a win."
Before the game, Mendoza told the team about her plan and asked her coaches to help round up three buckets of balls. As she walked to the podium to receive her silver medal, USA softball PR director Julie Bartel pulled Mendoza aside and told her the balls had arrived. "I grabbed my teammate Stacey [Nuveman] and said, 'I want to do this. Can you help me?'"
After the awards ceremony, Mendoza and Nuveman walked up to the members of the Japanese team first, and asked if anyone spoke English. When a translator arrived and Mendoza explained her plan, the gold medalists didn't understand.
"At first, they thought we wanted to play catch with them," Mendoza said. "Then they thought we wanted to take pictures with their team. I didn't know if they ever truly understood, so I said, 'Just come with me,' and I took them by the hands."
Mendoza led them to the area where U.S. pitcher Monica Abbott had outlined the numbers 2016 on the field. "We split the three buckets between us and started placing balls on the field," Mendoza said. "I walked over to Yukiko Ueno and handed her a ball."
Then the women knelt and placed their balls on the field, and then stood behind their creation. "I was holding hands with Stacey Porter and Ueno, the pitcher who just defeated us, and we were chanting 'Back, softball,'" Mendoza said. "It was beautiful. I felt more emotional than I did all day."
Not every member of the teams took part in the ceremony for two reasons. Mendoza said they didn't need everyone because it would be too chaotic, and she also understood some of her teammates were extremely upset and not ready to look to the future right then. Not everyone was going to think that way and she was fine with that.
Three hours later, as Mendoza prepared to meet with several members of her team to celebrate their Olympic experience and, yes, their silver medals, she said she hopes the outcome of this Olympic tournament will help answer many of the questions she's been asked repeatedly this week. "It shows that this sport is a lot more equal than people say," Mendoza said.
"That was the question of the week: 'Do you think dominating this game hurts the sport?' I kept saying, over and over, we don't dominate," Mendoza said. "There is disparity and so much talent in this sport. Those questions bothered me because the Olympics should be about doing your best. I know there are people who are happy we lost because they think it's better for the sport, and that frustrates me. That is not what sport is about."
As Mendoza and her teammates were being publicly criticized for dominating their sport, another Olympian was becoming an international hero for dominating his.
"No one is telling Michael Phelps to back off," Mendoza said. "Since when has someone told Michael, 'We're going to eliminate swimming because you are doing way too well?'"
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.