Ace righthander Lisa Fernandez never lost faith in her teammates
or her belief that the U.S. softball team would find its way to
the gold medal podium. She just wasn't sure she wouldn't lose her
mind before she and her teammates got there.
Softball was one Olympic event that was supposed to be short on
drama. With the U.S. brandishing a 110-game winning streak and a
prohibitive-favorite status that rivaled the Dream Team's, the
Americans were expected to waltz through the tournament. But
after starting preliminary play with easy wins over Canada and
Cuba, the U.S. fell into a teamwide slump against its most potent
competitors, losing consecutive games to Japan, China and
Australia--the first three-game losing streak for the U.S. in the
sport's 35 years of international play.
It was a particularly trying stretch for Fernandez, 29, a former
four-time All-America at UCLA who is widely regarded as the best
player in the world. Playing DH and third base the first four
games to save her arm for later in the tournament, she went 0
for 18 and tearfully declared herself "a disappointment" to her
teammates. Then, after taking the mound and striking out an
Olympic-record 25 batters in 12 2/3 innings against the Aussies,
she gave up a game-winning two-run home run to leftfielder Peta
Edebone. "The nightmare continues," said Fernandez, who had
allowed a 10th-inning game-winning homer to Australia in the
Americans' only loss in the 1996 Olympics. "This has been the
biggest mental challenge I've faced in my career. But I'm
confident we'll all break through it."
Just to be sure, after that third straight defeat all the players
gathered in the shower, in uniform, for a "voodoo cleansing,"
said Fernandez. "We scrubbed off the evil spirit that was on us."
In the high-pressure march to the gold that followed, the U.S.
won five straight, including payback victories against China,
Australia and, in the final, Japan. "No one is going to remember
that the U.S. went 4-3 in round-robin play," said Fernandez, who
shut out the Aussies 1-0 in the semifinal and pitched a
three-hitter in the 2-1 victory over the Japanese. "They are just
going to remember who [knocked in] the game-winning run."
With apologies to centerfielder Laura Berg, whose eighth-inning
fly to left was dropped for an error, allowing the winning run to
score, that historic losing streak cannot be so easily dismissed.
Though the U.S. can point to costly errors, unlucky breaks and
bad juju, there also were these damning stats: In the three
losses the Americans scored only two runs in 38 innings and left
42 runners on base. "I never thought I'd see the whole team go
into a swoon as far as hitting and scoring," said coach Ralph
Raymond after the second setback. "We don't seem to be the same
club we were a week ago."
That was due in part to the fact that the caliber of softball in
Sydney was much improved over what it had been in Atlanta.
Pitching, the most dominant element in the game (the rubber is a
mere 40 feet from the plate in international play, compared with
43 feet in NCAA games), was far better than what the U.S. faced
in 1996. With many teams fielding better as well, the scores were
closer than they were four years ago, and the margin for error
was tighter than ever. "A single mistake can cost you the game,"
says Fernandez. "That happened to us against Japan and China, and
it happened to Japan when we beat them for the gold medal."
"The Olympics is a great leveler," said Edebone. "The gap between
the U.S. and the rest of the world has gotten closer."
Fernandez agreed. "I still think if we had played the way we are
capable of playing, this could have been a walk-through," she
said. "But it was a wake-up call. The rest of the world is
catching up, and that's good for the sport. Because of our
losses, other countries realize they have an opportunity to win,
so they'll invest more money, and players will invest more time.
It's going to be a dogfight from here on out."