Par: Christopher Séguin
13 years ago, the dream of the Canadian Women’s National Softball Team seemed lost forever.
Having been narrowly defeated by Australia in the Beijing 2008 semifinals, their pursuit of our country’s first-ever Olympic medal in softball had ended in a fourth-place finish. To make matters worse, the sport was removed from the Olympics for the foreseeable future, making it unclear whether any softball player would ever be afforded an opportunity to play at this event again.
Amidst the fallout from that heart-breaking loss, Canada’s then 21-year-old shortstop Jennifer Salling told the National Post, “the [World Championships] are something we have to look forward to now. And then, the Olympics in 2016 to get in. For some of us, we will still be here. Many of us won’t.”
It might have taken longer than Salling had hoped for, but softball is officially back in the Olympics. It makes its return to the Summer Games this week in Tokyo with the same uncertain future that it had in Beijing (as it’s not included on the Paris 2024 program). Yet, true to her words, only Salling and three others from the 2008 Olympics are on this year’s Canadian squad, and you can bet they’re all aiming to make the most of their chance to compete again on the Olympic stage.
“We have an opportunity here to rewrite such a different story than ‘08 in a really cool way and truly make history for our country,” said Salling, who was one of nine Canada Games alumnae who were on the 2008 Canadian Olympic Softball Team. “So from 2017 to now, I've literally just been training full-time, non-stop for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, because watching the ‘08 vets and the leaders, they taught me that this is a full-time job — to be an Olympian.”
The other Canadian holdovers from Beijing 2008 who’ll be competing in Tokyo are left-handed pitcher Lauren Bay Regula, catcher Kaleigh Rafter, and right-handed pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who has been a teammate of Salling’s for the better part of the last 20 years. Their shared connection dates back to a time well before they joined forces on the national team, with one of their earliest joint ventures coming at the Regina 2005 Canada Summer Games as teammates on British Columbia’s softball team.
“That really was my first big experience from a softball standpoint. I was just starting my career as a softball player,” recounted Salling, who played shortstop for Team BC and held one of the squad’s top batting averages during her years playing as a teen. “I just remember that first event being like ‘wow, this is a really cool experience’. You're walking into the Opening Ceremony, you got all your Team BC gear on with the best athletes in your province, and there's just a feeling that comes with wearing something on your chest that's just far bigger than you.
“It was just fun. It was inspiring, and it was cool because it was the first big moment in my life where I was like ‘wow, this is what it feels like to play for something bigger’. This is what it feels like to play on the ‘big stage’ of our sport.”
That big stage in Regina culminated in a showdown between rivals British Columbia and Ontario for the competition’s ultimate prize, and it produced a unique pitching duel featuring two future Olympians in Team BC’s Lawrie and Team Ontario’s Robin Mackin.
Mackin, who later became an All-American at Fresno State and Nebraska University, was undoubtedly a force at that time. But, as Salling had quickly learned, so too was her friend and teammate Danielle Lawrie who ultimately proved to be too difficult for Ontario’s sluggers in Team BC’s gold medal victory at the 2005 Canada Games.
The result would become a familiar one to Salling, as she got to enjoy a front-row seat to Lawrie’s development into one of softball’s most-feared pitchers. In the 16 years since Regina 2005, the pair have been teammates on several occasions, including with the University of Washington, the Canadian National Team, and the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league’s USSSA Pride and Canadian Wild.
“It's just crazy to think about how much [Danielle] and I have gone through,” said Salling, who grew up in Port Coquitlam, B.C., which is less than 30 minutes away from Lawrie’s hometown of Langley, B.C. “[Danielle] is hands down the best competitor I've ever played with in my entire life. I hope every single softball player gets to play behind somebody like her because she will do anything for you and the team to win. I think it's such a cool feeling to have [Danielle] as a teammate. You just know that she has your back, she's going to protect you, and she's going to go to bat for you every single day, all day.
“Softball aside, I'm just super grateful for our dynamic. She's absolutely one of my go to peeps, and she's been a rock for me on this journey.”
Their close bond proved to be especially important to Salling in the days that followed the 2008 Olympics. After taking a year off from the University of Oregon for the Summer Games in Beijing, Salling felt unsettled at the prospect of returning to Oregon for her sophomore season. She had begun to realize that she needed to make a change, and the discussions that she had with Lawrie helped her make one of the most important decisions of her career.
“After the 2008 Olympics, when I came back to Eugene, I was going through a really, really tough mental state,” said Salling, who was named the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year and a First-Team All-American following her freshman season as an Oregon Duck in 2007. “Eugene is a really small town, like I could handle it now, but when I was that young, coming off a whirlwind of a year of the Olympics, going back to a very small town, I felt very secluded.
“I just couldn't shake it. Danielle continued to communicate [with me], and to make a long story short, [the University of Washington] was what felt right with where I was at, at that time in my life. I needed the Washington culture. I needed to be challenged. I needed somebody to educate me, guide me and help me figure myself out both as a softball player and as a human. And coach [Heather] Tarr did that.”
Despite challenges that came with completing her transfer to the University of Washington (UW), Salling’s tireless efforts ultimately made her eligible to compete for the Huskies in April 2009. Salling started the remaining 30 games of that season for UW at shortstop and helped the university win its first-ever National Championship in softball. She did it all while playing alongside Lawrie, who wound up earning the first of her two straight USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year awards.
“Honestly, I'm most proud of sticking to my gut, when something wasn't feeling right after the Olympics,” declared Salling, who finished her three-year career at the University of Washington ranked in the school’s top-10 for batting average, triples, slugging and on-base percentage. “I'm proud that I made the decision to go to a place that's significantly changed my life to this day for the better, and still continues to because of how connected I am with coach Tarr, and our relationship.”
That relationship with Huskies head coach Heather Tarr is precisely what would bring the Canadian Olympian back to Seattle. After four years competing in the NPF league, Salling decided to enroll in UW’s intercollegiate athletic leadership/higher education Master’s program in 2015. She also joined Tarr’s coaching staff, serving as a graduate assistant manager to the Huskies softball team.
Essentially, the 2005 Canada Games gold medallist had begun thinking about what her life would look like after her playing days were over. Thus, determined to give back to the game that had given her so much already, she began laying down the groundwork for a future career as a college coach. However, a year into her graduate program, she found out that softball was returning to the Olympics in Tokyo.
Now, despite the fact that she had continued to play for the Canadian National Team while in grad school, Salling’s training had become less of a priority. Consumed by both her education and her position on UW’s softball coaching staff, her performance on the field as a player had begun to suffer. It was something that caught the attention of Team Canada’s head coach Mark Smith (a 2009 Canada Games alumnus) following the squad’s summer schedule in 2017.
“One of the things I always love to do following the summer is just to thank each of our staff members individually for their services,” recounted Salling, who graduated with her Masters of Education during the spring of 2017. “So, Coach [Mark] Smith responded to my email, and this wasn't his words verbatim, but the gist of it was ‘J-Sal, you have some stuff to figure out. Either you figure out what this next journey is going to look like for you, or there's some people coming up, and they're going to take your spot.’”
Pressed with a choice to either focus on her coaching career or to make a run at another Olympic Games, Salling chose the latter. She made her decision with the understanding that a push towards Tokyo would require a full-time commitment to not only just secure her spot, but also to give this Canadian team what it needs to have its best chance at a podium finish in Tokyo.
“That's been my biggest thing in this second chance, being entirely committed, entirely invested, and just super bought into the mission,” stated Salling, who led Canada with 11 RBIs at the 2019 WBSC Americas Qualifier that punched Canada’s ticket to the Olympic Games in Japan. “I still have the email [from Mark] to this day, and it was exactly what I needed to hear because it kicked me in the booty. It was like, ‘you got to get it together and figure this out’. It was game-changing, and I'm at my best right now because of it.”
Like so many aiming for Tokyo 2020, Salling’s journey to the Olympics was disrupted when the Games were postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She first learned about the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) decision to withhold its athletes from the event unless it was delayed to 2021 via a group chat with her fellow teammates and coaches. In the end, the COC’s stance helped prompt the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reschedule the Olympics by a year, which understandably took Salling time to process.
“It was just all of the emotions in the entire world that you can ever imagine after seeing that message [from the COC]. Like what does this mean? What's happening? I'm confused, and all of the things: mad, sad, frustrated. All the emotions,” recalled the four-time Pan American Games medallist. “My thing was: I'm not going to allow COVID to get in the way of all the hay that I have put in the barn both mentally and physically, especially over the last four years. I just was not allowing it.”
Undeterred by the added obstacles that came with training for an Olympic Games during a pandemic, Salling and her Canadian teammates went to work and sought to make the most of the added year that was now standing between them and their Olympic dream. Salling is adamant that this squad is stronger and better than ever, which leaves her confident about the kind of history that this Canadian team can accomplish this week in Japan.
Ultimately, the stakes will be high for this group. With softball only added to the Tokyo Olympics as a result of its popularity in Japan, the sport along with baseball are sadly not going to be a part of the Paris 2024 program — possibly making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these players.
However, when Team Canada starts the six-team Olympic tournament on July 21 ranked third in the world, they won't just be in great position to obtain our country’s first-ever Olympic podium in softball, they’ll also be primed to make a run at the competition’s golden prize.
“I truly think in my heart of hearts that no other country in this entire world has prepared like we've prepared,” declared the 34-year-old Salling. “I think our culture is the most connected and united culture that any Softball Canada team has ever had.
“When all is said and done on July 30, I am retiring. And I don't want any questions, or to wonder if I shoulda, woulda, coulda done something different, because I want to leave being at peace and free.”
Given the all-consuming investment that Salling has made ahead of these Olympic Games, I have no doubt that when she officially hangs up her cleats at the end of the month, she’ll walk away with that peace of mind — but hopefully she will be able to do so with an Olympic medal around her neck.
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