Sometimes all you need is a little perspective.
Haylie McCleney got some of that this past year, and it’s made all the difference for her as she prepares to compete with Team USA softball in the Olympics this summer in Japan.
McCleney, a three-time, first-team All-American outfielder and former Alabama softball player (2013-16), was set to live out a dream of playing in the Summer Games in 2020 when COVID-19 hit.
The pandemic put the Tokyo Games on hold, and it wasn’t clear if the Olympics would happen at all. McCleney and her teammates continued workouts and conditioning over the next year. On March 8, almost a year after the pandemic shut down team activities, Team USA took the field in Clearwater, Florida to face Mexico. It was the team’s first international competition in two years.
“For a while during the pandemic, we didn’t know if we were going to be a team again,” McCleney said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. There was an extra level of gratitude of being able to be on the field and compete with each other again.”
It showed, as Team USA swept the three-game series.
McCleney got another big boost of confidence last week after she took part in DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation Sports Matter Giving Truck Spring Tour. McCleney partnered with DICK’S to give out 10,000 pieces of softball equipment to youth athletes.
She surprised youth players in Mobile (virtually) with the equipment, and the experience reinforced McCleney’s drive and desire to compete in Tokyo, a dream that was almost snuffed out.
“It put things in perspective for me... to see the look on the kids’ faces and hear them talk about how excited they were about getting the gear and how excited they were about their season,” McCleney said. “I can see myself in those kids – to be outside playing and just having fun.”
Playing in Tokyo won’t just be about fun, however. McCleney and Team USA have a mission – bring back the gold medal.
It was Team Japan that dethroned USA from the softball pedestal in 2008 in the Sydney Games. The U.S. took gold in three straight Olympic Games before taking silver in 08. Softball was eliminated from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Although softball is back on the list this year, it’s not part of the 2024 schedule and is questionable for a return in 2028.
“A lot of us just have one shot at this,” McCleney said. “Our sport has waited 12 years to be back in the Olympics, so it’s really important that we do everything in our power to get to Tokyo and play in Tokyo and bring a gold medal back where it belongs – the United States.”
While training and preparing for Tokyo, McCleney does manage to squeeze in time to follow the Crimson Tide softball team. She likes what she sees so far, and expects No. 3 Alabama to be in Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series.
“This is one of the better groups they have had in the past few years,” she said. “They are my pick to win it. Hopefully, I can be there to watch them.”
McCleney credits her time at Alabama with helping her make the U.S. Olympic team. She has no doubt she could have been a great softball player at any other school. But playing for coach Patrick Murphy in a Crimson Tide uniform was something special.
“I got better at softball at Alabama, but I became a better human being,” she said. “My character developed at Alabama and that was a key to me making the Olympic team. I don’t think I’d be on the Olympic roster if not for the University of Alabama and what it did for my maturing process.
“Being tied to that program is something I’ll hang my hat on for the rest of my life.”