Sahvanna Jaquish hopes to make it to 2020 Olympics the hard way
IRVINE, Calif. -- The stands were empty. No cameras broadcast the movements on the field. An unseasonably frigid burst of winter made the setting even less familiar to high stakes softball. But for roughly 60 players in Florida this past January, the scrimmages that made up the bulk of the annual USA Softball selection camp were as intense as any competition in their experience.
With so much talent evenly distributed among four teams, each moment was an opportunity. And any misstep potentially mortifying. Catching former Olympian Monica Abbott for the first time ever during one such scrimmage, Sahvanna Jaquish signaled for a backdoor curve. Almost in her windup already, Abbott called out that she didn't have that pitch. The catcher sheepishly signaled a different pitch. In the end, Jaquish recalled, Abbott still struck out all three batters.
"It's not that hard to catch Monica Abbott; she's the best in the world," Jaquish said. "But I was really scared I wasn't going to be at her level because she's so experienced. It was like, 'She's the best in the world. Am I adequate to do this?'"
Nerves were understandable for someone in her first U.S. selection camp. Every player in attendance hoped to make the team that will compete in the WBSC World Championship later this year -- and also to make an opening argument for the roster that will compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo if the U.S qualifies for softball's return. But it wasn't just that dream that made Jaquish wonder if she belonged and weeks later left her too nervous to open the email that revealed the final roster.
They all dreamed of a path to the Olympics. For Jaquish, after playing for the Puerto Rican national team since 2014, including in two world championships and a medal-winning run in the Pan-Am Games, pursuing that dream with the U.S. meant risking the security of another path.
"It was a hard decision for me," Jaquish said. "I was set with Puerto Rico. I was comfortable; I was one of the best players on the team. But my heart told me, as a player, do I wanted to be comfortable ever? That was enough. I wanted to be challenged."
The flow of world-class athletes across international borders is nothing new. A crowded depth chart in one country is an opportunity in another. And many countries, including the United States, are both importers and exporters. Overlooked at home and in search of an opportunity to compete internationally, California-born Ali Riley has been a mainstay of the New Zealand women's soccer team for a decade. Conversely, French-born soccer defender David Regis became an American citizen weeks before playing for the United States in the 1998 World Cup.
There aren't just a handful of such cases in sports; there actually are hundreds across the globe. There were dozens of cases alone in the recent USA Softball International Cup, with rosters of participants -- including Mexico and Venezuela -- crowded with players born and raised in the United States but who qualified to play for a different country by way of a parent's or grandparent's connection.
What makes Jaquish's path unusual, and the gamble she made so bold, is that she went against traffic on that well-traveled international expressway. With softball little played or emerging in many parts of the world, the United States supplies swaths of the globe with players. The U.S. is rarely the recipient, especially not when it comes to filling one of just 15 openings on an Olympic roster.
To be fair, Jaquish started out moving in the same direction as most softball players. She was born and raised in California, not Puerto Rico -- itself part of the United States and populated by American citizens but which has competed as an independent entity in international sports since it was recognized by the International Olympic Committee prior to the 1948 Olympics. Her connections to the island were through her paternal grandparents. That heritage wasn't a defining part of her upbringing, but it was enough for a representative of the Puerto Rican national program to inquire in 2014 if she was interested in playing with the team.
Coming off a successful freshman season at LSU, and with the sport of softball at that time relegated to the Olympic wilderness, it was a good opportunity for skill development. If nothing else, few collegians had a summer that included a home run against eventual world champ Japan.
"There's no summer ball, there's no Cape Cod League like in baseball," said LSU assistant coach Howard Dobson, who fills the same role for Team USA. "So playing international ball when you're a freshman or a sophomore, you get those extra at-bats and things you can work on and also you're facing really good competition."
Jaquish played in the 2014 and 2016 editions of the world championship, as Puerto Rico improved from a winless effort to ninth place in a 31-team field two years later. It won bronze in the Pan-Am Games that same summer, Puerto Rico's first softball medal in a major event.
Still, when the IOC voted in 2016 to reinstate softball for the 2020 Olympics, Jaquish found herself torn between a uniform she had come to appreciate and one she grew up admiring. The fear that she would one day regret leaving the Team USA stone unturned ultimately won out.
Rule 41 of the Olympic charter sets out the nationality requirements for athletes, including changes of nationality. Because Jaquish obtained a release from the Puerto Rican federation and because softball wasn't an Olympic sport at the time she competed in major events, she was not only allowed to switch eligibility but could do so without the normal penalty of sitting out three years.
All she had to do then was make one of the most difficult rosters to make in all of sports.
The Olympic tournament in 2020 will include six teams. As many as three of those could come from North America and South America, if the United States claims the one berth available through this year's WBSC World Championship (2020 host Japan qualifies automatically). If the U.S. wraps up its spot, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico will be the favorites to fight it out for the remaining two spots. Its pitching depth bolstered by NCAA standouts Taran Alvelo, Giselle Juarez and Meghan King, Puerto Rico recently beat Mexico to finish seventh in the International Cup.
There seems at least as good a chance that Puerto Rico is in Tokyo as its former slugger.
"I might be watching the Olympics on the couch," Jaquish conceded.
She worries that people will think her ungrateful to Puerto Rico. From essentially a softball mercenary (minus the remuneration), Jaquish grew to understand more about her own roots, as well as the financial and logistical challenges her now former teammates face playing the sport. She talks enthusiastically about opportunities she had to explore the island. And competing for Puerto Rico, without the spotlight and statistical scrutiny of the SEC, freed her to play for fun.
She is grateful for the part Puerto Rico played in her becoming one of the best in the world. But she had to know if that was good enough to be among the 15 playing for Team USA.
Her first step was successful. Although in her haste she didn't see her name the first time she scanned that roster email in January, it was there. A catcher growing up, she had to learn to play other positions equally well to ensure a place in the lineup at LSU. That versatility might be her ticket to Tokyo. It at least earned her a trip to Chiba, Japan, site of the world championship next month.
"She's a Tairia Flowers type of player," U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said in reference to the versatile and power hitting two-time Olympian. "She can play first, she can play third, she can catch. She can hit, she can run. You've got 15 spots [for the Olympics], so you're trying to find those diversified guys. You have to go in with almost 2½ catchers. You can't go in with two, because if one gets hurt, you're in trouble."
There will be another selection camp next year, presumably in less frigid conditions, and another email to open after that. What finally convinced her to click the link this time was the knowledge that she had done what she set out to do -- to find out if she could be on Team USA.
"I told myself nothing is going to keep me from playing my game," Jaquish said. "If I fail, it's going to be playing my game. It's not going to be playing outside myself or trying to do something I've never done. If I fail, and if I don't make the team, then I need to get better.
"But it's going to be while being me, being Sahvanna Jaquish."