When I think of the greatest female athlete of all time, names like Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Cathy Freeman and Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee come to mind.
The last time softball was contested at an Olympics Games was 12 years ago in 2008 in Beijing. Only two members of the current Aussie Spirit squad participated in those Olympic Games: captain Stacey Porter and Justine Smethurst.
Back in 2008, Kaia Parnaby was in her final year of high school. She had already started playing softball and was even given the opportunity to train with the Aussie women heading to Beijing as part of her selection to train at the NSW Institute of Sport. But her career was very much in its infancy.
“At that stage I was busy doing my HSC, just being a kid and hoping and praying that one day I would get to represent Australia at an Olympic Games, just as those women did,” says Parnaby.
Now 12 years later, softball will be contested again at the Olympic Games. And with their victory in the Asia/Oceania Olympic qualifier in China last year, the Aussie Spirit have secured their ticket to Tokyo. Parnaby is desperate to be part of the team that goes to the games.
“I don’t have the words to express how much selection in the team would mean because of how hard we have all been working over the last 12 years,” says Parnaby.
This hunger is largely the result of the uncertainty surrounding softball’s inclusion at the Olympics. Softball is a sport that has been excluded and now re-included in the Olympic program so some of the Aussie Spirt squad have waited 12 years for another chance to compete at the Olympics.
For other players they have waited 12 years for their first opportunity to continue the success of this team.
The Aussie Spirit are one of Australia’s most successful sporting teams, having already won five Olympic medals. The team won a silver medal in 2004 and a bronze medal in 2008. Parnaby is confident that she is part of a squad that is also a real chance of medalling.
“Undoubtedly this team can medal. We still have so much room to improve and I have no doubt that you will see the best of us in Tokyo. You won’t see it before then. We will peak in Tokyo and everyone will look at this team and know that we are here to medal,” says Parnaby.
“It has been a long road for all of us since softball got taken out of the Olympics in 2008. We had a lot of players drop out after that, but now we have a core group of players that have been together for about ten years.
“We are experienced in knowing how we play together. We have had some younger players come through too, so we have had the chance to grow together over the last decade. I think that was a big part of the reason for our success in China last year – we know each other really well as a squad and a lot of that is because this core group has been together so long.”
But before the Olympics, the Aussie Spirit have plenty of work to do.
The 2020 Australia Pacific Cup begins today at Blacktown International Sports Park featuring teams from Japan, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei. Several of these teams are ranked in the top five and will also be competing at the Olympics, so it is a great opportunity for the squad to impress ahead of Tokyo.
This tournament also marks the commencement of a very busy period for our softballers, who will compete for the next four days, then play in the Summer Slam, which is a fast-paced version of the code. At the end of that tournament, Softball Australia will send a squad of 23 to the United States to compete in their professional league.
Fortunately, the players don’t have too long to wait to know if their Tokyo dream will come true with the squad set to be announced as early as February 10.
Given how sporadically softball is featured in the Olympic Games, every woman chosen will be working as hard as possible to ensure the team is in the best position to win gold in Tokyo.
The entire softball community is behind them too. The team is not professional, so at times, they need to pay a levy to compete. However, CEO of Softball Australia Dave Pryles recently ran a half-marathon to raise funds to offset some of these costs.
Parnaby is fortunate in that she is a full-time professional athlete, but she is one of the lucky ones.
“I am really fortunate in that I can say I am a full-time softballer. I am lucky enough to be able to play in Japan in a professional competition so when I am home in Australia I can solely focus on training and on the national team,” says Parnaby.
Beyond Tokyo, Parnaby is not sure what comes next. Softball will not be contested at the Paris Olympics, but may feature in Los Angeles.
By the time the Los Angeles games arrive, Parnaby will be 38 years old and if she is still playing, she will be nearing the end of her career. But with her inspirational captain Stacey Porter heading into this Olympics aged 38, this will hopefully not be Parnaby’s only opportunity to compete at an Olympic Games.
The first three days of the tournament will be live streamed on the Softball Australia Facebook page. You can catch the semi-final and grand final on Fox Sports and Kayo this Sunday.