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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 I 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? 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."