Softball players such as Victoria Hayward have waited more than a decade for their sport to return to the Olympic stage. The Canadian believes that the world is going to fall in love with it at Tokyo 2020, that the matches will create one of the Games’ best atmospheres – and that the exposure can help more players into the professional game.
Victoria Hayward has no doubt that softball is going to be a home run at Tokyo 2020. It’s an event that she believes people who have never seen it played will find addictive. “Softball is incredibly fast-paced and always on the go,” she said. “The international game has a pitch clock, so pitches are happening less than every 20 seconds. They’ve put in lots of measures so that it stays very high-energy. It combines team excitement with individual star performances. There’s a real rhythm, flow and aggression to it. For me, it’s a cool marriage of fundamental skill and raw human power. Some of the things these athletes can do are amazing.
“You get great attacking play, but also brilliant defensive action. As the sport grows and people watch it on TV, they think, ‘Wow, I never knew I’d love softball’. They’re drawn in, and when it is country against country, there are great historical rivalries and great pride, which raises the stakes even more.”
Softball, a variant of baseball, is played with a larger sphere (which is actually hard these days, rather than the initial ‘soft’ version), on a field with 60-feet (just over 18m) base lengths and a dirt surface (rather than grass). Softball pitchers throw underhand – but still pretty fast – and there are seven innings rather than nine. The team with the most runs around the bases wins.
Mental resilience is the key to success. “The key to becoming a good softball player is willingness to fail, and have fun doing it,” she said. “Our game is so tough. If you’re a 300 hitter [a player with a batting average of .300], then you are failing seven out of ten times, and you’re the best in the world.
“So you need a willingness to fail forwards and get better. It is an odd sport because there are moments when you are alone and you have to perform, you can’t hide. When you’re up to bat, when the ball comes to you, the ball doesn’t lie. It’s hard because there’s so much on the line, and the pressure has never been higher.”
The 27-year-old Canadian is bursting with excitement about the prospect of becoming an Olympian in Japan. She has been playing for her national team for 11 years.
It’s a cool marriage of fundamental skill and raw human power. Some of the things these athletes can do are amazingVictoria Hayward Canada
“When we found out (about softball’s inclusion in Tokyo) , there were tears. To do it in Japan will be special, because the country is such a supporter of the sport. We’ve spent a lot of time playing in Japan, and they are so invested in it. They play the game with great precision, and the fans are amazing. Tokyo will do it the right way, it will be celebrated.”
Hayward is a huge fan of Japan already. “I love it,” she said. “Our coach, Mark Smith, has done a great job preparing us for Tokyo. We have been to Japan five times now over four years. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever travelled, it is beautiful, purposeful, organised. We feel comfortable there because we know how to use the transportation, we like the food. Every time, we think, ‘Woo-hoo, we’re going back to Tokyo’. And I’m very excited for the Olympic Village. It will be great to meet people who understand what you’re going through, and have that same level of drive.”
The other sport she wants to watch while out there? “Our whole team thinks that we are beach volleyball players,” Hayward said with a laugh. “We are always finding a court and start playing in our off-time. So I’d like to see some of that played really well.”
Hayward, who moved from Toronto to California as an eight-year-old, and was enrolled in softball to make friends, works for the University of Central Florida as director of operations for softball. Most players, she says, have to graft at other jobs alongside their sporting commitments due to the limited opportunities to play as professionals.
“I played for the Washington Huskies at college, and did a masters in business administration, and I’ve done a few assistant coaching positions,” she said. “But I’m currently stepping away from coaching, which is very demanding, so I can concentrate more on training.
“It’s hard to be a softball pro. There are a handful of pitchers who can do it, and there’s a league in Japan. Each team there can have two foreign players, so some girls go and do that. And in the summer there is a pro league in the USA. This summer, the Canadian team is participating in that all together, so we’ll get a chance to play a lot of games and get lots of extra experience.”
Hayward hopes the Olympic exposure will help grow the game. One thing is for sure: the Canadian team is now far more professional in its approach and discipline than in previous years. “Our goal is now to win the gold medal,” Hayward said. “That’s been out of reach of our team in the past. We wanted to win and strived for the top, but that was hard for Canada. Now, with the work our team has put in, in the last few years, the decisions our team has been making have started to pay off.
“People have been quitting jobs to train full-time. Staff members have been going above and beyond. There has been lots of strength and conditioning work. We are putting in some of our best-ever performances and we know we’re going to keep getting better. We know that it’s not just the podium that can be our goal. We can win.”
The USA and Japan are the obvious teams to beat, with Canada currently ranked No.3. But Hayward highlights several other contenders: the competitiveness of the sport is one of its key selling points, she believes. “The USA and Japan have won the previous golds at the Olympics, but the Netherlands and Italy have done some awesome things, and then there’s Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines. It’s more competitive than ever.”