Superstars Sierra Romero and Lauren Chamberlain try to squeeze onto U.S. Olympic roster
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Fifteen people. That is a busy line at the coffee shop or a crowded hotel elevator ride. More to the point, it's barely more people than there are positions on a softball field.
And it is one of the two most important numbers in softball in the United States at the moment.
The other is 2020, the year softball returns to the Olympics. With the sport axed from the program after 2008, a generation of American players grew up unsure they would see another opportunity. Now they know that they will.
Or more to the point, that 15 of them will.
Every player wants a place on the most exclusive roster in the sport, far smaller by Olympic rule than pro or college teams. Every player wants to make a name for herself. Even those who have done a good job of that already.
Perhaps the biggest stars to emerge from college softball this decade -- whether measured by the number of entries in the NCAA record book or a social media following that includes more than a quarter of a million Instagram followers between them -- Lauren Chamberlain and Sierra Romero are among the multitudes who are on the outside looking in. Neither was part of the U.S. team that won a world championship in August and qualified for the Olympics. Their omissions when the team was named underscored the challenges of life after college glory.
Yet while that U.S. team spent the summer reserving a place for 2020, Chamberlain and Romero used the same months to make the case that the best American team two years from now will have to include two of the sport's best-known players.
Their production helped the USSSA Pride win a National Pro Fastpitch title, but no one in softball lives solely in the present these days.
"I want to go to the Olympics," Romero said last week. "The tryout is in January, but I still have to be invited to it. If I'm invited, I'll go and try out. I went to the last one [for the 2018 team].
"At the end of the day, I'm going to do whatever I need to do to go to the Olympics."
Twice the national college player of the year at Michigan, the espnW winner in 2015 and USA Softball winner in 2016, Romero is the NCAA's all-time leader in runs scored and ranks fourth in slugging and 10th in home runs. Every swing is a microburst of ferocity from a 5-foot-5 frame. She earned a fan following while with the Wolverines by virtue of big numbers and unapologetic confidence. She knew she was good.
She was still good in the NPF, if not as dominant in her first two seasons as in this most recent campaign in which she led the league's best team in batting average and on-base percentage, among those who accumulated a full season of plate appearances. Acceptable numbers her first two seasons obscured a learning curve that tested her confidence. She was good, but suddenly, so was everyone else.
I'm going to do whatever I need to do to go to the Olympics.Sierra Romero
Her approach at the plate, her stance, her thought process in the field, all required reevaluation.
"Those are all things that maybe I didn't necessarily do, or have to do, in college," Romero said. "In college, it wasn't easy, but it wasn't very difficult for me. And then when I got here, it was hard. I realized very quickly I needed to make adjustments. I needed to make myself harder to get out or a better defender -- reading what hitters are going to do and not playing straight up all the time but going to where their tendencies are on the field."
As she alluded to, Romero's best pro season also came after she tried out but was not selected for either of the U.S. teams that competed this summer. Ali Aguilar, Kelsey Stewart and Hannah Flippen were among the second-base options selected for those rosters. That she wasn't part of the USA picture in the past could be chalked up to the fractured relationship between the national program and the Pride, whose players rarely crossed over in recent summers. But with a new level of cooperation, numerous Pride players played for one of the USA teams.
Romero instead was a willing pupil for first-year Pride coach Mike Stith, a mainstay of youth softball and instruction in California and Romero's former travel ball coach.
"I haven't had my butt kicked like that in a long time," Romero said. "[Carol Hutchins] definitely got on us at Michigan, but I missed being yelled at like that. It pushes me to another level, having someone who expects so much from me. If I do something right, he says I can do it better."
The approach reminded her of her dad, Michael, the former baseball player who shaped the swings of both Sierra and younger sister Sydney, an Oklahoma All-American. And indeed, Stith said he texted Michael soon after arriving in Florida to work with the Pride with the message that he would be proud of how hard his daughter was working. That she was truly a professional.
"She's trying to do more. She's doing more than she is required to do because she wants to be better," Stith said. "Whether she has a chip on her shoulder, whatever the case may be, I don't know. But for me, she had her foot on the gas the whole time."
Chamberlain was happy just to be able to get through all the gears this summer. Like Romero, she was invited to the national team tryout last winter. Unlike her teammate, she had to decline the invitation because of injuries. That lost opportunity was part of the most miserable offseason of her life.
After surgery in the fall related to labrum and bicep injuries, she slipped a disk in January during rehab and needed another procedure. Suddenly, someone who said she hadn't had a surgery before was an operating room regular.
Chamberlain had played through discomfort and put off a surgical fix for long enough that it was difficult to maintain perspective, to remember there were reasons the ball didn't jump off the bat the same way or the swing flow as easily.
"Naturally, you'll have doubt start to creep in," Chamberlain said. "You're thinking, 'Am I the player I was? Am I falling apart? Is my body disintegrating before my eyes? Am I going to have to find a different thing to do?' You can't let that beat you."
The numbers this season just about speak for themselves. Her body whole and her mind at peace, she hit 12 home runs and slugged .853 in 29 games for the Pride.
"I know the hitter I am when I'm healthy," she said.
Chamberlain often talks about the idea of branding, and no player in her generation has more successfully constructed one for herself. Able to use an outgoing personality to embrace the attention that came with a long and ultimately successful pursuit of the NCAA's all-time home run record, she in some ways even benefitted from the NPF's low profile. She was already as big a star as the sport had. So where other players struggle to turn NPF success into greater fame, her brand wasn't damaged by a handful of injury-marred seasons that few people saw.
But even for Chamberlain, who further raised her profile with an appearance in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue this year and has enough sponsorships and softball-related income to be the still-rare full-time softball player, there are limits to branding. That was driven home by, among other frustrations, the costs of medical procedures that, beyond what was covered by the 25-year-old's insurance through her parents, became out-of-pocket expenses.
"You can get caught up in the mindset of, 'Why do I have to do this?'" Chamberlain said of the effort required simply to have things like time to train. "I think that is something that can naturally happen for a female athlete: Why do I have to go the extra mile to get people to see me and explain myself to get respect? I think that's something that is hard. But it's on us at the end of the day. I can sit here and have that attitude and it wouldn't get me anywhere."
An Olympic gold medal isn't a lottery ticket, but it can take a person places the way nothing else in the sport can.
There is still time. Even in the previous Olympic era, more stable for the national program than the past decade, rosters changed. The 15-player Olympic roster in 2008 included two players who were not part of the 17-player roster that won a world title two years before that. Even Team USA coach Ken Eriksen, who doesn't have sole discretion over roster selections but has made clear his belief in continuity, said competition is inevitable.
"You can't be ridiculously blind to finding that there is talent also waiting to get into those [two U.S. rosters], whether it is from the Scrap Yard [Fast Pitch] organization or other players in the NPF," Eriksen said earlier this summer. "The United States of America is pretty loaded with talent."
A twist for Chamberlain and Romero is that one or both might find the path blocked by a current teammate long overshadowed by both. Able to play every infield position, hit for power and deploy the short game, the Pride's Shelby Pendley has the versatility so valuable on small international rosters. And coming off an NPF championship series in which she, rather than Chamberlain, Romero or former and hopeful future Olympian Kelly Kretschman, starred, there is a compelling case that Pendley is the most glaring omission on the U.S. roster.
Pendley said after the NPF championship series that 2020 remains her objective. As it is for just about everyone willing to take on the challenges of continuing to play beyond college.
Including two of the biggest stars of a generation likely to be defined by this opportunity. But only 15 will make it.
"If I get that tryout back, I will absolutely be there," Chamberlain said. "That's still the goal."