Global ace Monica Abbott on her return to Team USA and her quest for Olympic gold
All the world might be a stage, as William Shakespeare suggested, but Monica Abbott has waited a long time to have a global audience watch the curtain go up on one of her signature pitching performances.
A decade ago, after perhaps the most prolific four seasons in NCAA softball history at Tennessee, Abbott was the youngest member of the United States team that finished second in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Like Carli Lloyd and Candace Parker, then first-time U.S. Olympians in soccer and basketball, respectively, she was a singular talent poised to be the face of a sport.
And indeed, few of her peers in any sport were more dominant in future Olympic years.
In 2012, Abbott was the pitcher of the year in National Pro Fastpitch, throwing more shutouts that summer than any other two pitchers in the league combined, and she had the Chicago Bandits on the brink of a title when weather washed out the playoffs.
In 2016, Abbott led the Toyota team to a championship in Japan's professional softball league, striking out 13 batters to earn MVP honors in the final. In this country, she also went 18-1 with a 0.72 ERA and nearly three times as many strikeouts as any other pitcher in NPF to again win pitcher of the year honors and lead the expansion Scrap Yard Dawgs to the playoffs.
With a softball in her hand, she controlled her world. What she couldn't control were the politics of global sports, which is why neither she nor any other softball player had a chance to compete in the London or Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The sport was dropped from the program after 2008.
Like much of rest of the U.S. team that won silver in 2008, Abbott returned and won gold in the 2010 world championship. Then, like those teammates who didn't retire, she stepped away from the national team to try to fill the Olympic void with a sustainable domestic outlet for players to continue competing professionally beyond college. She is still at it. In addition to continuing a long and successful career in Japan, she is the cornerstone of the Texas-based Scrap Yard organization, which acrimoniously separated from the NPF after winning that league's title last season and is now an independent organization, with two teams which employ 14 of the 29 professional players on the two U.S. national-team rosters this summer.
And for the first time since 2010, Abbott is back among those competing for the national team. With softball back on the Olympic program for at least 2020 in Tokyo, when Abbott will be 35 years old, she might yet be the ace who brings gold back to the United States. Her performance in every setting available to her makes clear she remains the world's best.
Prior to this week's International Cup in Irvine, California, a warm-up event for next month's WBSC World Championship that offers Team USA its first chance to qualify for the Olympics, Abbott spoke with espnW about the summer and her return to international competition.
What kind of thoughts go through your mind when you think about putting on that USA jersey again?
Abbott: I think about opportunity and tradition, growth, respect, hope, gratitude. There are so many overwhelming emotions when you put that jersey on. Knowing the people that played before you -- in my case, being part of [what was] potentially the last Olympics and then waiting so long in almost what I would call a lost generation of softball players. And on the tail end, getting the chance to wear it again, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have another chance.
You used the word hope. How challenging was it during those lost years to keep that hope?
Abbott: In the most honest of ways, I would say it was like the worst boyfriend you could ever have.
[After being told repeatedly the International Olympic Committee will listen to your side] you get broken up with, essentially, when you don't get in. You do it for 2012, and you do it again for 2016. Then they name the extra sports for 2020, and you're not named. Then you get rerouted as a Tokyo bid sport.
There's just been such a long process and in some ways it's been a little draining at times. Because when you have such a devotion and passion for the sport that you play -- and something that you believe in, in the future of it and what you're doing -- it is emotional. There is a lot of hope involved in a better future and a chance. Just give us a chance.
At some point during those eight years, did you have to accept that it might not happen?
Abbott: I think I definitely at one point had to think, 'What if it doesn't get in? Do I have a chance? How much longer will my career go? What does that look like for me without an Olympics? Does the Olympics mean everything or is it a piece of me? How do I define myself as an athlete?'
So when softball was voted back in, did that shape how you thought about moving forward with the rest of your career?
Abbott: I had to have those conversations with those in my inner circle. Is this the direction that I want to go? I had to check in with myself as an athlete. I also looked at some of the older athletes -- [former U.S. Olympian and longtime Japan pro league standout Michele Smith] played until she was almost 40.
If I was going to go back and try to compete for 2020, I want to go back to be one of the best. I don't want to go back because I was on a team before. USA should have the best players on the team. If that's me, if that's not me, whatever it is, I want to go back to be the best. I want to be the best person for that team, to fill the role that they need in the best possible way.
As much time as you have spent in Japan, knowing that softball world, what sense have you gotten of the energy and buzz on that side of the Pacific?
Abbott: Oh my gosh, the buzz over there is crazy. Everything they do is about 2020. It's all over TV, news media, social. It's in the airports, it's in the train stations -- there are posters with their softball athletes or other athletes. They're on the TV game shows and everything constantly. There is a huge buzz over there around the 2020 Games, and even more with softball because they are defending their gold medal. That is a sense of pride for them. We definitely have our work cut out for us over the next few years.
With Team USA, what strikes you about this particular group?
Abbott: This group I feel like is very driven. I think they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, as well, and I feel like that's healthy. They're very driven to put on a show and be successful, but they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder of, 'Hey, we're going to compete with the best.' As a group, it feels like everybody is motivated for the same goal.
Maybe this isn't fair to ask before you play international games, but has the international game changed much since 2010, since you were last with USA?
Abbott: I think it has. And I think the game of softball has changed because of technology. Whether it's in bats, TV, products -- we're smarter athletes, we're smarter at training. There is more accessibility. In Australia, you can go on YouTube and watch pitching lessons. You can be in China and watch pitching lessons, learn how to hit, all these things. The technology alone has greatly improved the international game.
There is so much focus on 2020 and the Olympics, and that is obviously when the most people are paying attention, but for a player on the field is there any difference in the level of competition or intensity in a world championship compared to the Olympics?
Abbott: The world championship is like a steppingstone to the Olympics. So the stakes get raised higher for the Olympics. The world championships are huge, especially this year being an Olympic qualifier and only allowing one berth. But when you go to the Olympics -- everyone knows it. You see those amazing Olympic feats that athletes have -- the cross-country skier dying across the finish line, performing beyond belief. Record-breaking runs, pitching perfect games, all these amazing athletic achievements that people dream of and work for literally their entire lives. So is the Olympics a step up? Definitely. But you can't get to that ultimate dream without going through the world championships.
How has the routine been in this first year of this setup with Scrap Yard? Has it felt much like any other summer?
Abbott: The Scrap Yard situation is we have a core group of women that want to have an opportunity to continue their careers and continue playing. We're competing against each other, and I think it's challenging because the teams are similar every time. So you're facing similar people. But I think it has been good.
When the management at Scrap Yard decided it wanted to make that move [to separate from NPF], and as you were learning about the plan, what kind of questions did you have?
Abbott: I think my biggest thing was seeing growth and seeing opportunity. I think ultimately there is a little bit of an issue with softball right now in that we have so many amazing collegiate athletes and so many of them graduating but no place for them to play. How do we keep our athletes continuing to play? I think Scrap Yard decided we're going to continue to run our two teams and continue to give those girls opportunities to play that probably wouldn't have been on teams otherwise. The more people you can keep playing post-college, the more opportunity and brand recognition there is and the more people buy in because those fans follow them.