When softball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 on Wednesday at Fukushima Azuma Stadium, star pitcher Monica Abbott will be returning along with it.

Abbott’s last experience in the Olympics came with the United States in Beijing 13 years ago. After tossing an eight-inning gem in a semifinal win over Japan and ace pitcher Yukiko Ueno, Abbott pitched the final two innings of the Americans’ loss to the Japanese in the gold medal game.

Abbott has moved on from that game in the ensuing years, pitching professionally in both Japan and the U.S in addition to a successful international career. But that is not to say there aren’t still lingering memories from 2008.

“I definitely think about it,” Abbott told The Japan Times. “I was the youngest player that year. So I definitely remember a lot about it. I also feel like I’ve grown a lot since then. The Olympics are something that stick with you for a long period of time and stick with the world for a long period of time. So if I don’t remember it, everyone else reminds me of it.”

Softball was taken off the Olympic program after the 2008 Games. It returns this year in Tokyo after missing the last two Olympics.

The top-ranked Americans have waited over a decade to renew their quest for a fourth Olympic gold medal in the sport. They will get started against Italy on Wednesday and have a showdown with No. 2 Japan looming on July 26.

“I think we’re pretty loose right now,” Abbott said. “I would say we have a good balance. I think at times we have to check ourselves. Like, just relax, it’s still a game, the bases are still 60 feet, all those sort of things. At the end of the day, it’s still the same thing you’ve been doing since you were 12 years old.

“As long as we stay centered on that, have a good balance, have fun and are able to play relaxed, I think we’re gonna be in really good shape.”

Abbott, a left-hander, enters the Games as one of the most decorated players on the U.S. roster.

U.S. softball ace Monica Abbott pitches in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in April. | KYODO
U.S. softball ace Monica Abbott pitches in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in April. | KYODO

She helped the Americans win world championships in 2006, 2010 and 2018, going 9-0 across those three tournaments. She threw the first Olympic perfect game in 2008 — against the Netherlands in five innings — and ultimately helped her team earn the silver medal.

Abbott also starred professionally for the Toyota Red Terriers in Japan, where she won six Japan Softball League titles and was a five-time league MVP.

“It’s helped me have more clarity, it’s really challenged me to become a better athlete,” she said of playing in Japan. “I think Japan has the best professional league in the world for softball. So it really challenged me to step my game up. So that’s been a big thing for me.”

Rather than looking to avenge a loss from 13 years ago, Abbott seems happy to just be able to compete in the Olympics again.

“Softball is a sport that gets overshadowed by baseball sometimes,” she said. “But on the female side of it, it is the highest stage of our sport. The Olympics is it for us, just like it is for a lot of other sports. That’s where I think female athletes shine. So it’s exciting that they gave us the opportunity to showcase it in a country that is so strong in this sport.”

Abbott was the youngest player on the team in her first Olympics and will be one of the squad’s veterans this time around. While she hopes to share her experience and insight with her teammates, she says the method is just as important as the message.

“You don’t want to be that person that’s always, ‘Well this is how it was, this is how it was in ’08,'” Abbott says. “You don’t wanna be that person.

“Allowing a safe space and allowing my teammates to have the conversation about, ‘Hey what did you feel like when you threw your first pitch in the Olympic Games? What was it like in the village? What should I expect?’ Helping manage expectations and excitement so that they’re in their best mindset going into the Games, I think that’s been huge.”

Monica Abbott pitches against the Netherlands at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. | REUTERS
Monica Abbott pitches against the Netherlands at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. | REUTERS

Abbott has a career in the game and a list of accomplishments that already validate her greatness and place in U.S. history. The one thing she does not have yet, however, is an Olympic gold medal.

She took silver away from her first Games and has had to wait a long time for another chance.

“It would be huge,” she said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I think right now the biggest thing is to stay present in the moment and to not take anything for granted. Every pitch matters in our game and everyone is preparing that way. So right now I think the biggest thing is continuing to prepare the best I can and sharpening the irons just a little bit more in these last couple of days before our event starts.”

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