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How Softball Could Make Its Return At The 2020 Olympics

For a small core of current Team USA softball players like Lauren Gibson, the challenge is as much finding a way to keep training as it is getting better through training for only the possibility of a 2020 Olympics bid. ASA/USA Softball

There is always a Crystl Bustos story. For a generation of softball hitters now in their late teens and 20s, the former Team USA slugger's name is something of a shibboleth. Most young players with even a passing interest in the sport looked up to Jessica Mendoza or Jennie Finch, then and now, but paying homage to Bustos is an indication of a particular passion for hitting.

For Lauren Gibson it was watching Bustos "drop bombs" at the plate when the national team came through Prince George's Stadium in Bowie, Maryland, home of the minor league baseball Bowie Baysox and a short drive from Gibson's hometown, during a 2008 exhibition tour.

In the weeks that followed, Gibson's mom would wake her to watch Team USA games during the Beijing Olympics. So it was for girls from Chesapeake Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

A little more than six years later, Gibson, now with a legion of social media followers of her own after an All-American run at the University of Tennessee and playing for Team USA, is one of the sport's stars. She is the one who wows young fans, if not with Bustos-like legendary tape-measure shots that no one can match then with just how much power can coil within a 5-foot-6 frame.

Six years from now, someone may be able to wake up early to watch her play in Tokyo after her sport was handed a lifeline when the International Olympic Committee this week adopted wide-ranging reforms.

"I want to know the percentages of us being back in," Gibson said. "Really, I'm just ready to know the for-sure answer to if we're back in or not. Seeing [the reform vote pass], it was a really good perspective of at least it seeming like we have a good chance now. But I'm just kind of ready to know. I'm kind of ready to go, actually."

She will have to wait for those answers. But limbo looks a whole lot better than oblivion for international softball.

Softball is not back in the Olympics. Not yet. But the outlook now is a good deal brighter than it was after the sport was first eliminated from the program following the 2008 Olympics and then denied a bid at reinstatement in 2013, losing out to wrestling. Shortly after the latter vote by the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach officially replaced Jacques Rogge as president of the organization. Not unlike the Vatican, another Europe-based institution with a history of opaqueness that recently went through a leadership change, Bach wasted no time establishing a new tone. That culminated in this week's IOC vote in Monaco to adopt his 40-point "Agenda 2020" reform plan that touches on everything from lowering the cost of Olympic bidding to reforming the program.

The path for both softball and baseball, which now operate under the collective governing umbrella of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, to reclaim a place in the Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo Games is a byproduct of Bach's larger reform agenda. Where the Olympics were previously limited to a set number of sports, Bach proposed, and the IOC this week passed, an event-based system that caps only the total number of athletes. The reforms also included a provision for organizing committees to "make a proposal for the inclusion of one or more additional events on the Olympic programme for that edition of the Olympic Games."

In Japan, where the baseball culture is well documented but which also has a longstanding professional softball league and a national team that won not only the final Olympic gold medal in 2008 in what many considered a stunning upset against the United States but also both the 2012 and 2014 world championships, that makes the bat-and-ball sports prime contenders for inclusion.

That is where things stand now, with people like USA Softball executive director Craig Cress waiting for the next step.

"Obviously there is excitement for us to have the opportunity," Cress said. "We feel really cautiously optimistic still because Tokyo, I feel, will carry the water. They really want [softball and baseball] on their home soil in 2020."

Cress said USA Softball has been given no indication of when a final decision would be reached, but while noting it was his own speculation, he said a timeline that included confirmation in 2015 would be "really quick."

Given that in addition to working out the financial and logistical details of bat-and-ball sports in 2020, there is still the potentially messy issue to resolve of which existing Olympic sports will lose athletes and events in order to accommodate new sports under the overall athlete cap, it makes sense that both Cress and Team USA coach Ken Eriksen stressed a theme of "cautious optimism" rather than jubilation about the developments in recent weeks.

When asked what conversations had taken place with the United States Olympic Committee to plan for a potential Olympic return, Eriksen turned to a familiar analogy for a former catcher.

"You don't want to talk about no-hitters or you don't want to talk about this and that," Eriksen said. "We haven't discussed 'What if we get it?' What we're planning on is, OK, let's say that we're put off again, how are we now going to deal with our challenges this way and that way? I think we'll let the golden goose lay its egg when the golden goose lays it egg, but I think it's better that we make plans [that] if things don't happen, what are we still vying for?"

With six lean years under their belts and the likelihood of at least several more ahead until the USOC and sponsors start thinking about softball after the 2016 Olympics, pragmatism has become the operating philosophy for USA Softball.

Eriksen, who has been affiliated with the national program as either a player on the men's team or a coach on the women's side for nearly three decades, is an example of what kept the national program going. Now in his fourth year as its head coach, a position in which he had to build a roster almost from scratch from a much younger player pool than was previously available to the national program when it had more funding, he has yet to draw a paycheck for his work. Nor have his assistants, who last year included UNLV coach Lisa Dodd, Oregon State coach Laura Berg (a four-time Olympian as a player) and LSU assistant coach Howard Dobson. That despite the increased fundraising demands that Eriksen must deal with in addition to his full-time job as University of South Florida head coach.

What he does has to be a labor of love because it certainly isn't paid labor.

When softball was part of the Olympic program, Cress said the national program might get $200,000 in funding from the USOC during the first year of a quadrennial cycle, building up toward seven figures by the year of the Olympics. Basically all of that vanished after 2008, the USOC contributions now limited to marketing initiatives and other small means.

It's little different for the players. Not even the stars of previous generations ever got rich playing international softball (nor, while some around USA Softball will occasionally leave the suggestion otherwise hanging in the air, do players who choose to play in National Pro Fastpitch, the pro league with which the national program shares a contentious and counterproductive relationship). But it has gotten only more difficult for the national team to be anything more than a collection of active collegians and graduates not yet fully immersed in the world of careers and bills.

For the small core of the current team, players like Valerie Arioto, Amanda Chidester, Sam Fischer, Gibson and Michelle Moultrie, who won silver medals in both the 2012 and 2014 world championships, the challenge is as much finding a way to keep training as it is getting better through training.

While sponsorship money from big non-sport-specific clothing and footwear companies dried up almost completely for softball players without Olympic exposure, Gibson was one of those able to at least secure some income from deals with DeMarini, which makes baseball and softball bats, and Wilson, which makes gloves and other equipment.

"With the USA money being so small -- I mean, even if we got zero money, I would be perfectly fine with it," Gibson said, "But it's just like to live and stuff you kind of need a little bit of money. So that was nice."

Eriksen referenced the Olympics as the goose that lays the golden egg, and like any fairy tale, there is an element in all of this of being careful what you wish for. So much of the focus of the softball community over the past six years has been on getting the sport back in the Olympic program. Should that come to pass in 2020, it will be cause for celebration. But there would be no guarantees that inclusion in 2020 would mean inclusion in 2024 or 2028, depending where those Games are held. USA Softball could enter a boom-and-bust cycle almost as dangerous to its health as the past six years.

"Your stomach will always be in knots, I guess, when you're thinking about who is going to host the next Olympic Games," Cress said.

Yet it's unlikely anyone in softball would pass on the potential prize to spare themselves that uncertainty or risk. As much as the Women's College World Series has become the sport's signature event in this country, one that hasn't suffered in ratings, attendance or quality of play the past six years, the Olympics represent something.

Currently enrolled in the graduate entrepreneurship program at South Florida but planning on a career in coaching, Gibson will be 29 years old when the 2020 Olympics arrive. That falls in the middle of what should be an athlete's physical prime. It is also a difficult age for any softball player to reach these days. Then again, Bustos was 30 when Gibson saw her that day in Bowie.

So why not Tokyo?

"I just want to see it back in the Olympics, and I want all the little girls that look up to us to have a chance to play in the Olympics," Gibson said. "All the girls that have stuck around with USA, I feel like that's what they want is just a chance to play in the Olympics and give everybody else a chance.

"For everybody else who dreams about playing in the Olympics to at least have the ability to have that chance."

She and her peers aren't there yet. But after events this week in Monaco, they can finally see it again from where they stand.