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When the Olympics canceled softball, it erased years of progress for women

Even now, eight years later, I’m not completely over it: The US softball team lost in the gold medal game of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was the first time in Olympic softball history that the US didn’t win gold.

It was horrible. I felt that we’d let down the tradition of USA softball. That we’d fallen short for all the women who'd paved this golden tradition for us.

It was made even worse by the fact that we wouldn’t have another chance to win in four years; Beijing was the last Olympics for softball. The International Olympic Committee had voted a few years earlier to discontinue softball, as well as baseball.

Coach gathered us around after we lost in Beijing and said, "You need to be proud of who you are and what you've done. It's important to know that life's going to hand you a lot harder things than a silver medal." We didn’t want to hear that. To this day, every time I bring out the silver medal, it still stings. I want to do it over again.

The tough road of being a female athlete

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a softball player. I wanted to be a major league baseball player, because that's all I knew. I internalized the idea that male baseball players could play professionally — but female softball players? Not so much. I didn’t think a career as a softball player was a possibility.

That all changed in 1996, the first year women’s softball was an Olympic sport. I was 16 years old. My parents brought me out to watch the team on tour when they came to play exhibition games in Southern California. My dad took me out of school early so we could go watch the players get off the bus and warm up. We were the first people there.

I was in awe of the way they played the game: the passion, the fun. It was so inspiring for me. I remember waiting in line for their autographs afterward, and that was the moment for me. I looked up at my parents and said, "That's what I want to do. I want to play USA softball." It was such a thrill to be able to have the Olympic dream in my heart.

The US women’s team won gold at the Olympics that year. They won it again in 2000.

In 2004, my childhood dream came true: I was a pitcher on the US Olympic team. It was exhilarating and intimidating at the same time: We had targets on our backs. Nothing but gold was acceptable. When we won gold, it was by far the greatest moment for me on the field.

Women paved the way to finally get us here, and now the sport is being discontinued? How is this possible?

The high didn't last long. In 2005, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would discontinue the sport after the 2008 games.

Still, to this day, the most common question I get from young girls is, "Why?" It’s tough to not be able to give a quality explanation, because there isn’t one. The International Olympic Committee is notoriously secretive and didn’t give a reason publicly — though many people suspect it’s because the United States was just too dominant in softball.

It was a heart-wrenching decision. It was hard to even believe, or swallow, or imagine. I thought, "How is this even possible? How can they just take out our sport?" I just remember thinking, "This cannot be real."

I felt like we were taken back 100 years, to a time when women were discouraged from becoming athletes. It was like, "Wait a minute. What happened to all this progress that we made? Women paved the way to finally get us here, and now the sport is being discontinued? How is this possible?"

My teammates and I tried not to dwell on the disappointment and threw ourselves into training for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. We said to ourselves, "All right. We’ve got to go in there and play with everything we have, and leave it on the field. We’re going to show them how truly great our game is and have that hope of getting back in eventually."

Just as in 2004, it was gold or nothing. There was no silver.

But the unthinkable happened: We lost, 3-1, in the gold medal game against Japan.

How I gained perspective on our crushing loss

In the years since Beijing, making peace with the loss has been a long, slow process.

Some people told me, "Oh, well, the best thing that could have happened for our sport was for another country to win." Their logic is that it’s good for softball to be competitive, that part of the reason the Olympic Committee eliminated it was because the US team was too dominant. And I responded, "No, absolutely not. The Olympics is about excellence. Don't come here with that." The competitor in me won’t accept that.

My husband is a professional baseball player, and it was hard for me to look at him and not be jealous. As a man, he has so many more opportunities to play professionally. There are 30 major league baseball teams but only six professional women’s softball teams.

I played for the Chicago Bandits for several years, and I loved it, but it didn’t get anywhere near the attention and support that men’s baseball teams do. I would get upset thinking, "It’s so not fair to see the opportunities my husband has versus what we as women do."

Still, I get a lot of satisfaction out of encouraging girls to succeed. Even if softball is no longer an Olympic sport, I can still use my platform to encourage young athletes. I wrote a book called Throw Like a Girl, aimed at helping girls navigate the pressures of middle and high school. I started a camp for young softball players. Giving back helps me put the silver medal in perspective — there is nothing greater than being able to encourage and inspire the next generation.

Being a mother also helps. My oldest child, Ace, was 2 years old during the Beijing Olympics, and he really doesn’t care if I win or lose. I would like to think that he wants a winning mom, but when it comes down to it, he couldn’t care less. My daughter, Paisley, gives me hope for the future. I love that she is growing up in a time where women can do anything.

But most of all, I’ve realized that even though I didn’t want to hear it at the time, my Olympics coach was right: Life does hand you harder things than winning a silver medal. I’ve learned to appreciate what I’ve done, because there are so many millions of young people out there who would give anything to compete in the Olympics. Yes, the score matters, but if you're playing ball, life is good. I hope I never forget what a gift it was to be there.

Jennie Finch is an Olympic gold and silver medalist in softball. She is a former collegiate All-American who played for the University of Arizona, and is the NCAA record holder for consecutive wins (60). She played professionally for the Chicago Bandits and is credited with helping to grow her sport’s popularity.

Finch currently lives in rural Louisiana with her husband, former MLB pitcher Casey Daigle, and their three children, Ace, Diesel, and Paisley.

As told to: Eleanor Barkhorn
Photographer: Anna Harris


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