Softball star Laura Berg is one of very few Olympians to win three gold medals at successive Games. The only player to feature in all four Games in which softball was included, she was devastated when the sport was removed from the Olympic roster. Now she’s helping coach some of the USA women targeting Tokyo 2020 gold.
It’s in the script of every cheesy sports movie for a reason: scoring the vital goal, basket or home run to win the big prize is something very, very few people get to experience in life. A moment that should be set to a montage of delirious teammates, weeping relatives and fans going bananas.
Laura Berg got to live it. Standing on the plate of the Blacktown Olympic Centre at the Sydney 2000 Games, she faced a pitch that – if she could get bat on ball – would hand the gold medal to the USA. The strangest thing about it all, perhaps, was that she wasn’t nervous.
“I had a couple of great hitters batting after me, so to some extent I felt like the pressure wasn’t on, because I wasn’t as experienced as them,” she said. “So I relaxed. I was blessed to get that moment. I get nervous now when I watch it back on tape, because I realise how huge it was. But at the time, I was fine.”
Fine she was, and the USA won the second of three consecutive softball gold medals. The cool head served Berg well through her 12 year Olympic odyssey, with gold garnered at the Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004 Games, as well as in Sydney, and silver at Beijing 2008. But it all started, aged six, thanks to her twin sister Randi. “I was very shy as a kid, and I copied everything my sister did,” said Berg. “Randi wanted to play softball, so I did it too.
“I loved everything about the game. I was always a kid that played in the dirt and had grazes on my knees. Randi and I both ended up playing at California State University.”
It was here that the possibility of becoming an Olympian was first raised for Berg. “With the Games being in Atlanta when I was 21, my coach put it in my head that there could be a possibility of me playing,” she said. “From that day, making the Olympics was my goal.”
It was, however, still a shock when she was called up. “I didn’t think I’d be selected for Atlanta. I was playing, but I thought there were so many players ahead of me, I didn’t even check the list when they put the names up. Someone actually woke me up to tell me I was going. I was so excited, but really surprised.”
Almost every moment of the Games is now ingrained in Berg’s memory. “A home Olympics is so special, and the crowds chanted ‘USA’ from the minute we entered the field until the minute we came off,” she said.
“My parents and twin sister came to watch, which was very special. I still remember the day before the gold medal match, being in car with my parents. The Lee Greenwood song, God Bless the USA, came on, dedicated to our team. I can feel myself in that car right now. And the final pitch I remember like yesterday. It was just fantastic.”
Her own final-pitch glory moment came four years later, although the side struggled during the initial stages at Sydney 2000. “They were a great Games, lovely people and koala bears, but all I can remember is that the team were playing really badly at first,” Berg said.
“We were one match from not making the medal round. We had to sort ourselves out with some team meetings, going around the group and saying what we were going to contribute. We went into the semi-finals ranked number four, and had our backs against the wall. But the way it came together was very special.”
The hat-trick in Athens was far smoother – “We played so well, all year we put hay in the barn, then when we got there, someone lit a match,” she said – but the USA star was disappointed to sign-off with a second-place finish at Beijing 2008.
“My mindset is gold,” she said. “My mum would say ‘there are plenty of people who would love a silver medal’. But I’m not one of them. We came up short. Japan took care of business.”
The sport’s return to the programme after a 12-year break has reignited Berg’s Olympic passion.
“The key was letting IOC members realise that softball is played in 127 countries. It’s a world sport and the bar is high. It’s not a lock that the USA win medals,” she said. “Mexico beat us recently at the Pan-Am Qualifiers. Puerto Rico, Canada, Japan – teams are getting better all over the world. I’ve never seen a game won on paper.”
As current coach at Oregon State University and of the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team, she’s hopeful that some of her athletes will get the same Olympic ambition she was gifted.
“That would be phenomenal,” said Berg. “I love this job, I pinch myself that I get to do it. It’s a privilege to mould young women’s lives. These kids are great, so to get a chance like the one I’ve had would be amazing. Softball at Tokyo 2020 is going to be really fast paced and exciting, with passionate crowds. I can’t wait.”