Reika Utsugi was hired to be Japan’s softball coach in 2016 for the sole purpose of leading the team to an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games.

Utsugi had played for the team herself. She was part of Japan’s Olympic squad in 2000, which took silver, and earned a bronze medal alongside star pitcher Yukiko Ueno at the 2004 Games in Athens.

Everything she had put into the last five years culminated in Japan holding a 2-0 lead over the mighty United States with the gold medal she was hired to win just three outs away in the seventh inning on Tuesday night at Yokohama Stadium. Utsugi had recently used Miu Goto, who survived a scare in the sixth, to close out games, but with gold on the line, she felt the need to make a change. Utsugi didn’t doubt Goto’s ability, but her pitches had been near the middle of the plate and Utsugi was wary the powerful Americans were starting to adjust.

So Utsugi, as Japan has done countless times for nearly 20 years, went to Ueno to ask her to shoulder the burden once more and pitch the seventh inning.

“When I approached her she said, ‘Of course I can,'” Utsugi said Wednesday. “No hesitation.”

Ueno had pitched the first five innings of the game and returned to retire the side in order in the seventh to lead Japan to the top of the podium.

The moment was reminiscent of scenes 13 years ago, when Ueno pitched Japan past the Americans to secure the nation’s first Olympic softball gold medal. That was the first time the U.S. failed to win gold and Ueno was lifted onto the shoulders of her teammates.

“This gold medal comes with a strong sense of accomplishment,” Ueno said of her 2021 triumph.

For many, there was also a sense of finality.

Japan's softball team celebrates with manager Reika Utsugi after winning gold in softball on Tuesday. | REUTERS
Japan’s softball team celebrates with manager Reika Utsugi after winning gold in softball on Tuesday. | REUTERS

Ueno turned 39 on July 22. Returning for the Paris Games in 2024 would have been a very ambitious goal — even in the age of older athletes like 43-year-old NFL quarterback Tom Brady. Softball, however, was not included among the sports proposed for the 2024 Olympics. The earliest the sport can return to the Games would be in Los Angeles in 2028.

Meaning Ueno has probably thrown her last pitch for Japan as an Olympian.

She did not comment on her immediate future in the game — in international or domestic competitions — even after American Michele Smith’s name was brought up. Smith, a two-time gold medalist, pitched in Japan into her 40s and had the most wins in Japan’s pro league until Ueno established a new mark.

“Michele Smith is a player I truly admire and it would be nice if I could enjoy a long career as a pitcher,” Ueno said. “I do have that wish, but I have not thought about what I’m going to do next.”

If Ueno never throws another pitch, she will still retire as Japan’s greatest softball hero.

“You have to tip your hat,” said U.S. pitcher Cat Osterman, the opposing starter in the gold medal game in 2008 and again on Tuesday. “I think her and I broke into our respective national team programs about the same time. We were both 18, 19-ish.

“She’s continued to improve and she’s continued to improve her game at the age we are. You tip your hat, she’s an amazing pitcher. She’s been able to do some things to be able to stay on top of the game and we just know it’s gonna be competitive every time we play her.”

Ueno’s illustrious career has helped raise the sport’s profile in Japan.

In 2008 she launched herself into the national consciousness outside of sports with her performance at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Japan needed to play three games in the semifinal and final round at those Olympics, and Ueno threw complete games in all three — against Australia and the United States. She threw a combined 413 pitches in those contests and “Ueno 413” finished in third place among the nominees for Japan’s top buzzword of the year.

Softball was taken off the Olympic program after those Games, but Ueno continued to pitch the sport to whoever would listen, doing her part to help get softball back in the Olympics.

In the meantime she continued to star for Japan internationally, helping win gold at the world championships in 2012 and 2014 and silver in 2018.

Ueno was also among the top pitchers in Japan’s domestic league, where she had many duels against American Monica Abbott, who also pitched against Japan in the 2008 and 2021 Olympic finals.

“They’ve been my rivals forever,” Ueno said of Abbott and Osterman. “We’re all pitchers so we have a great deal of respect for each other. Especially Abbott, she’s been playing in Japan and we have been pushing softball in Japan, so we work together.

“Just like 13 years ago, we were on the mound facing each other in an Olympic final. I’m really happy about that and they are my rivals and great friends.”

Japan's Yukiko Ueno and American Monica Abbott pose with their medals on Tuesday at Yokohama Stadium. | AFP-JIJI
Japan’s Yukiko Ueno and American Monica Abbott pose with their medals on Tuesday at Yokohama Stadium. | AFP-JIJI

The load was never too much to bear and the stage was never too grand for Ueno. She adjusted as she aged, battled through injuries and remained near the top of the sport. She was also eager to step up and promote the game.

To many of her teammates, she is both a hero and mentor.

“I was a high school student when the Beijing Olympics happened, so it is like a miracle that I play with Ueno-san now,” Japan’s Yamato Fujita said. “It’s really amazing to be able to share this great moment together.

“I learned that you can reach your dreams if you don’t give up, so I hope children will keep playing softball and trying to achieve their dreams.”

Ueno is a different pitcher than she was in 2008 but has managed to keep herself at the top of the sport. Her reward for all of the work she’s put in over the past 13 years was a gold medal and one final moment of triumph that may serve as the fitting Olympic ending for a giant in the game.

“Every time we go against Ueno-san, she’s competitive, she’s intense,” Abbott said. “I think the coolest thing about her is that she constantly reinvents herself and attacks hitters in different ways.

“You can really see that as she’s aged over the course of these 13 years since the 2008 Olympic Games. It just proves that the peak age for softball players is not 22. In some ways I kind of think she’s like a softball god. Things always go her way.

“She’s definitely a legend and an icon in this sport.”

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