Utsugi ready to fulfill softball dream with Japan

by Kumi Kinohara

Reika Utsugi remembers the summer of 1996 — missing out on the Japanese Olympic softball team after she changed her nationality. Four years later, the former Chinese captain will play for Japan in Sydney.

Utsugi is ready to put all of her skills on display all for head coach Taeko Utsuigi — who made her decide to become a Japanese player — and her team.

“I don’t think anyone can understand what I felt four years ago, but I know. I’ve had that feeling inside me over the last four years,” Utsugi confessed.

Reika came to Japan in 1988, because she wanted to play alongside former Japan international Taeko Utsugi, now head coach of the Olympic team, ever since seeing Taeko play in 1980 during Japan’s tour of China. Taeko’s playing style fascinated Reika.

Her dream went unfulfilled, however, as Taeko had retired as a player by the time she arrived and had started coaching at Hitachi Takasaki. So she joined Takasaki, to be coached by Taeko.

Reika overcame the language barrier and went on to become a leading player for the team, helping it to win three Japan League titles and five All-Japan Championship crowns.

Reika then learned softball would be an Olympic sport beginning in 1996, and the Beijing-born slugger decided to apply for Japanese citizenship in hopes of representing her adopted country. But Reika couldn’t make the team as her citizenship wasn’t granted until August 1995, after she persuaded her father in China to agree to it.

Under international regulations, a player who has changed passports within three years before an international tournament is required to have the approval from the sporting federation of their old country before being permitted to play.

China, however, refused to grant approval to its former national team captain to play in Atlanta, likely because they knew Reika, whose Chinese name was Ren Yanli, would be a big threat to them. Utsugi won honors as the leader in both home runs and RBIs in the 1986 World Championship.

“I wanted to become the world’s No. 1 with China and worked really hard. But when China finished second in the World Championship, I thought that would be the highest I could reach. Softball was not an Olympic sport at the time.

“But then I thought I would improve my play and use my experience with Utsugi-san. She’s good at coaching and making things easier for players to understand,” recalled Reika, who chose her Japanese family name after Takeko’s.

“I struggled with the Japanese language and mentally suffered at the beginning. But I told myself that I was the one who decided to play with Utsugi-san. So, I just tried to overcome the situation,” she said in fluent Japanese.

But while waiting for her Olympic chance the past four years, Reika turned 37 this June. No longer in her prime, Reika is expected to start for Japan at third base while batting third and showing her strong leadership to boost her teammates in Sydney.

“I look at the situation positively. I try to sleep well, eat well and rest well to keep in good condition to play alongside my younger teammates to win a medal,” Reika said. She had 10 RBIs and four homers to help Japan win a bronze medal and an Olympic berth at the 1998 World Championship.

Reika has told her father through her sister in China that she will compete in the Olympics. He has recently suffered a cerebral infarction.

“I’ll play hard in the Olympics so that I can be on television, possibly zoomed up on the screen with a good play. Then my father can see me well on TV in China. I just want to show his daughter is doing fine,” Reika said. Japan’s second game is against China on Sept. 18. But Reika said it won’t be anything special. “I’ll take them as one of the seven opponents we’ll play.”

Japan head coach Taeko is a little concerned that Reika might put too much pressure on herself.

“Reika trains hard and checks her play with video tapes and swings the hundreds of times alone every day after official training sessions or games.

“She will be just fine if she plays like she usually does. But I know Reika is competing in the Olympics for her softball life and wants to toss me into the air at the end of the tournament. Even if we don’t have good results, I’d be satisfied if Reika puts out 100 percent performance for our team,” the 47-year-old head coach said.

Japan, which finished fourth in Atlanta, is aiming to win the gold in Sydney, but the competition looks tough.

In the first round of the eight-team round-robin tournament, Japan will play Cuba, China, United States, Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand. One game a day from Sept. 17 through 23. The top four teams from the first round will advance to the semifinals, which will be played on Sept. 25 with the third-place playoff slated for the same day. The final will be on Sept. 26.

The United States, which took the gold medal in Atlanta and has won the World Championship the last four times, is the strongest medal contender with Australia, China and Japan chasing from behind. Host Australia was a bronze medalist in 1996 and the runnerup in the 1998 World Championship, while the three-time Asian Games winner China took the silver in the 1996 Summer Games.

“It’ll be a battle between these four teams, but the U.S. looks strongest as a unit,” said the Japan head coach, whose team is known for its solid defense featuring shortstop Misako Ando of Denso. Ando, who batted over .500 at the Canada Cup in July, is expected to bat second for Japan. The United States features ace hurler Lisa Fernandez, who used to play for Toyota in the Japan League from 1998 to ’99. The 29-year-old UCLA graduate recently pitched five consecutive perfect games as the U.S. team tuned up for Sydney.

“Lisa knows us but we know her, too. It’ll be a tactical competition with her but I’m confident in winning that,” Japan’s veteran outfielder Haruka Saito of Hitachi Software said.

“If we play as we usually play, we’ll be fine. We just need to watch her pitching closely,” said Taeko.

Saito added, “We’ve learned how to cope with the situation from our experience through many international games we’ve played by now. It’ll be important for us to have good fitness mentally and physically.”