CrossFit, Firefighting, Baseball: The Wild Ride of Team USA Star Tamara Holmes

Juan Ocampo

Team USA power hitter Tamara Holmes is one of the keys to the American women's baseball team's chances at this weekend's World Cup final.

She's a firefighter near Oakland, a welder and a part-owner of a CrossFit gym. Oh, and also, Tamara Holmes is the starting left fielder and cleanup hitter for the No. 2-ranked USA women's national baseball team, which is playing right now in the World Cup in Miyazaki, Japan.

Holmes' life is a series of "oh, and also" details. She's the oldest member of the USA team, having turned 40 in June. Many of her teammates are in their mid-20s, and pitcher Sarah Hudek is going to be a senior in high school when she gets back to the States next week. Holmes is an imposing presence at the plate, standing 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds with crazy power. She competes in weightlifting and CrossFit competitions, with a bench press of 185 pounds, squat-best of 280 and a max dead lift of 330 pounds. Is it any wonder, then, that Holmes is one of the few women's baseball players in the world who routinely hits over-the-fence home runs?

Before the American team headed off for the World Cup -- the team is unbeaten and moves into the weekend's medal round as the top seed in its group, looking like a serious threat to win the whole thing -- Holmes sat down to answer some questions about what a weird, wild ride it has been. UPDATE: Team USA plays Japan tonight, but the result won't matter -- those two unbeaten teams have qualified to play one another for the gold medal on Sunday. 

You were a member of the Silver Bullets, the all-women's baseball team that barnstormed around the country in the late 1990s. What's the best story you have from playing on that team?

One of the most famous stories for us was, we were playing a boys' 18-year-old All-Star team in Georgia during the summer of 1997. We were winning the game, and their pitcher and catcher were doing a lot of trash-talking to one of our players. The player, Kim Braatz-Voisard, was really grounded and took it pretty well for the first couple of innings. And then one inning, the catcher made some motion toward his cup and said something to her, and then the pitcher hits her, and out of nowhere, she charges the mound and it ended up leading to this bench-clearing brawl. Do you remember the show "Hard Copy"? They showed the video and asked: "What do you do if the girls start to fight?" Then they showed the video of two players swinging at each other. That was kind of our claim to fame -- a bench-clearing brawl.

What did you do when the Silver Bullets folded after the 1997 season?

I didn't play at all. I had gotten into golf, gotten my (firefighting) career started, and then someone I knew found out about the USA women's baseball team in 2004 and said, "You've got to try out." But I always had this aversion to all-women's teams when I was growing up. If there was an all-women's league, there were maybe one or two good players per team, and then the quality got watered down pretty fast. So I would rather play on a men's team and not be the star than play in a women's league that I thought wasn't very fun. So I kind of dismissed it at first, but then the USA won the championship and got a really nice ring, and I thought "Hmm, I've never won a championship (and gotten a ring) -- it's cool you guys went and did this." So in 2006, when the next tryouts came around, I went and made the team. I didn't play in 2008, but I came back and played in 2010 and 2012.

Fantasy question: Who would win between the Silver Bullets and this year's USA team? You get to play on both teams, for the sake of argument.

I'd say the Bullets had better, more consistent pitching at the time. I have to put my money on the Bullets, but that being said, I'm amazed how good some of these players are. With the Bullets you had to be 18 to play. It's kind of a different era now. Kids play longer and more often and are well-developed even at 16. It would be a tough game.

How did you get your start in baseball?

I decided to play Little League. My next-door neighbor came home in the uniform, and thought, "That looks really cool." I played in the city I grew up in, Albany, California, and there might have been one or two other girls that joined that were my age. I hear that story a lot of young girls playing baseball and getting pushed out, especially as they get into their teens. I made my high school team my sophomore year, but after that I quit. We were moving to Berkeley, and I had to switch schools. I was also a volleyball player and basketball player, so when I switched schools, our basketball team was really good and we would go to states. I think we won states my junior year. I was a little intimidated switching schools and trying out for the baseball team after the basketball season went so late. So that sophomore year was my last season. Up until I was 16, I was never told I couldn't play. I went to college to play volleyball, and I stopped playing baseball and didn't pick it up again until I saw the Silver Bullets.

As a firefighter in Oakland for 10 years, you must have some great stories.

I've never had any rescues where we've pulled someone out. We've had some really big, tough fires and some horrible accidents nobody wants to hear about. We did have to rescue a cat the other day. We were coming in as the third engine; the fire was still going pretty good. I'm running down the street heading toward the fire and this was a very narrow street with cars parked on both sides. And this car whizzes by me and almost clips my arm. I yelled, "Hey, you almost hit me." And the driver is screaming "My baby, my baby is in there." Hopefully there's not actually a baby in there, because this fire's going pretty good. But we get it under control and he's out there ranting and raving and it turns out his baby is his cat. And that's fine too, I get it, I'm a pet lover. But I can't imagine running someone down over my cat. But luckily we did find his cat hiding under something. We did exactly what we would do with a human -- we gave it oxygen and a breathing treatment, and the cat was OK.

You're 40. Most people are wearing down at that age, but you seem busier than ever. How have you been able to maintain your baseball skills so long?

I found CrossFit in 2008, and it's made me stronger than I was in my teens and 20s. It's going to be hard to fight age, but doing this workout regimen consistently keeps age from catching up with you. Now that I'm older, I find even if I stop for a week or so, it makes a difference. I've been lucky to be fairly healthy. Even as a 40-year-old, I'm probably faster than half the team and stronger than the whole team. There are a good number of girls who have better arms for sure, but even that hasn't been a limiting factor. I'm sure some advantages come with experience. It's a certain maturity. I started doing some CrossFit competitions and people were saying "this young 18-year-old and this 20-something-year-old are coming after you. They're a threat." And I'm like, "That's absolutely not the threat." The threat is the 28-to-35-year-old, especially a woman who has kids, who knows herself and knows her body, who has that experience and that grounding. They're going to destroy someone who's young and not quite as mature yet every time. There's something to be said for experience -- that's why the USA team does well. We have a handful of younger players, but the consistency of the older players, too.

What kind of advice would you give to girls like Mo'ne Davis who want to keep playing baseball as they get older?

I would say for girls that want to continue, it's not such a big deal up until you turn 15. But once you start playing with the older boys, sometimes people aren't going to be as accepting. That's just going to be something you're going to have to deal with. You're always going to have to prove yourself. So don't let them put you down or give up. Don't be afraid of being the only one out there. Parents or coaches can help deal with any publicity, negative or otherwise. They have to understand they might be the only girl at some point in time, and if it's something you really want to do, keep working hard and stay physically strong.

The women's baseball World Cup is barely a blip on the radar to worldwide sports fans. Give us a sense of what it means to you and your teammates.

It's not hard to get motivated for these games. I treat it like it's my Olympics. It's a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I've been blessed to be able to come for multiple World Cups, but I don't take anything for granted. I try to play each one of these like it's my last. It's thrilling to be on a USA team and you think about it the whole time you're there. But we do make this joke about how you can represent your country and win gold medals, but nobody knows. On Saturday, you're in Venezuela hitting grand slams, and on Monday you're back to work and nobody knows.

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