Harrigan still heart of Team USA

ATHENS, Greece -- Team USA pitcher Lori Harrigan won't say goodbye to the game of softball until the end of these Olympics, but already the tears have started, courtesy of a thoughtful card first baseman Leah Amico gave each of her teammates on the plane ride over.

But if any opponents think Harrigan will be distracted by the emotions surrounding her departure from the game, they're sadly mistaken. Harrigan dominated China on Tuesday, giving up one hit and striking out eight in a 4-0 win. The United States, which has outscored its Olympic opponents 24-0, remained in first place with a 4-0 record in preliminary round play and has yet to allow a run.

"I definitely leave those thoughts for off the mound and after the game," Harrigan said. "All year you come to realize that the things you're doing will be your last -- your last time at the Olympic training center, your last time on the road, the last time pitching against these guys. … It's hard to let go."

Despite being a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Harrigan never has emerged as one of the faces of U.S. softball the way fellow pitchers Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch have, or the way Cat Osterman might soon. But she has played a significant role in shaping the younger members of the pitching staff, as well as the rest of the team, ensuring she'll be leaving the program in good hands.

"Harrigan is like all of our mothers, she really takes care of all of us," said catcher Jenny Topping, Harrigan's battery mate against China. "She's the backbone of this team -- other than our coaching staff. She really keeps everybody in line when they need to be in line and she gives us our 'attaboys' when we need them.

"I think most importantly she's taught the other pitchers just to respect the game and to go out there and play hard."

Passing along words of wisdom might not seem so important on a team that has been ranked No. 1 in the world for 18 years and has an unlimited talent pool. But three consecutive losses en route to the gold medal at the 2002 Games in Sydney proved Team USA isn't invincible.

Along with Fernandez, Harrigan has helped Osterman and Finch develop into dominating pitchers. In her first Olympic start, the 21-year-old Osterman shut down Japan, striking out 11 batters until her teammates found their offense in the top of the eighth inning and won 3-0. Her ability to maintain her intensity throughout the game and her visible maturity were no surprise. Harrigan and Fernandez have demanded their teammates remain focused during the final outs of games the team was winning handily during its pre-Olympic tour.

Finch, also a first-time Olympian, led the University of Arizona to the NCAA title in 2001 and struck out four major league baseball players in a charity softball tournament. Yet she credits the veterans for her improved mental toughness and work ethic.

"Every day in practice we're all working on something to get better," Finch said. "Both of them are 33 years old and they're both learning new pitches."

The two lefties (Harrigan and Osterman) and two righties (Fernandez and Finch) form a dominant rotation. In four games so far, the four pitchers have allowed just six hits while combining for four walks and 29 strikeouts in 25 innings.

Life on Team USA's pitching staff isn't all business or a one-way street. Harrigan, who turns 34 on Sept. 5, is the oldest player on the team, and is reminded of it often.

"The jokes that we've done on the older people when I was younger have definitely come back full circle," Harrigan said back in May, during an Olympic summit in New York. "I have Cat here all the time making sure she's reminding me that I am 12 years older than she is."

Sharing, mothering and helping people develop are part of Harrigan's nature. So is playing it safe. The batting cage netting in her backyard is a dead giveaway for which Las Vegas belongs to the softball player, so she keeps her gold medals in a safe deposit box at the bank at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, where Harrigan is a security supervisor.

And while the medals are special, she enjoys sharing them, too. When she brings them along on public appearances, she almost insists that people wear them and gets just as much of a thrill out of seeing their reaction of wearing one for the first time as she did back in 1996 in Atlanta.

"My medals are a little banged up and everyone says, 'How can you do that?' " Harrigan said. "Well, my whole thing is I don't want to be 80 years old with two perfect, shiny, non-dented gold medals. I'd rather have everyone else experience wearing it."

After the Olympics, Harrigan plans to continue her career at the Bellagio and eventually have children.

"My mom's been pressuring me," she said while laughing.