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Pep talk

Sasha Olson Interview Series Part I

By: Sasha Olsen
 

We interviewed former Canadian women’s national team player Sasha Olson about her softball career. A star at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Olson had a remarkable college career that started rather unconventionally. For the first installment of the series, Olson describes the beginning of her rather unusual softball career.olsonathens129.jpg

You grew up in a small town in British Columbia. What kind of softball experience did you have before attending Simon Fraser University?

I’m from a really tiny town called Valemount, in the Canadian Rockies (just on the BC side of the BC/Alberta border).  I had about 120 students in my high school, grades 8-12.  My hometown had a population of about 1000 at the time (now it’s down closer to 800!)  We didn’t have a lot of opportunities for sports, being such a small and rural area.  I played house ball on a boys team when I was about 14 or 15 for one year.  Then after that it was pretty much community recreational slow pitch!  Basically NO high level fastball experience whatsoever J

As someone who didn’t play much softball growing up, what inspired you to try out for the team at SFU?

To be honest, I was really homesick and wanted to go home in my first weeks at university.  I had moved from a small town to a university with a population of about 15,000 students.  It was a huge culture shock for me.  My mom is the one who suggested that I get connected with an intramural sports program.  She thought it might be a way for me to meet some people and feel less homesick. Wandering through the gym area, I noticed a sign for what I thought was intramural softball. So on the date that was on the sign, I got out my glove and went off to find the field. I saw a couple of other girls with ball bags and equipment so I followed them. And I found myself not at intramurals, but at SFU’s varsity softball team tryouts! I realized pretty quickly that I was really in over my head, but I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d made a mistake and was at the wrong place. So really, it was more accidental than anything else!

You made it onto the team after your tryout, but in more of a practice player role. What did you think of the opportunity?

That first day at tryouts I realized I was seriously in over my head. I had a floppy glove that I had borrowed from a friend (mine was at home in Valemount) and runners on. Everyone else had top of the line, well-cared for equipment and metal cleats! There were players from the junior and senior national team programs at that time! I was amazed by the skill level of the players and quickly realized that this wasn’t intramural softball at all. The girls were very welcoming (even though I’m sure I was a bit of an oddity and definitely did NOT fit in) and I was enjoying the workouts and the training and I figured Coach would cut me when he felt I was getting in the way, so I kept coming back out. I was really surprised when at the end of fall training camp, Coach told me that I was welcome to train with the team over the fall but that he couldn’t guarantee me a spot on the team in the spring – he had some potential recruits arriving in January. By that time I had met some friends on the team and was feeling a lot less home sick and I was thrilled that I had survived that long without being cut, so I was excited at the opportunity to remain connected to the team, even if it meant only a few more months of gym/weight room workouts. 

Part II

 

What made you stay through the season as a practice player, even though you knew that you wouldn’t be getting much playing time?

Through the fall and winter I had improved so much that Coach Renney asked me to stay on with the team for the season.  At that point, with as little high level experience as I had, I was just happy to be there!  I had a new family of teammates that made me feel like I belonged at the university, and I was enjoying the challenge of improving my game. But as our first road trip to California fast approached, I remember starting to feel really worried and upset.  The team had been training and working so hard, and had put in a lot of hours in preparation for the season ahead, and I was so worried that I might be put in a situation where I would hurt my team.  I knew I wasn’t ready.   Intent on quitting, I went to talk to Coach after practice one day, and told him why I was going to quit the team.   I told him that while I loved being part of SFU Softball, and I loved the girls and my teammates, I didn’t feel like I really deserved to be there – I hadn’t played at the level of my teammates, I hadn’t put in the years of competition, of training.  I was so worried and scared that I would hurt the team that I would rather step back from it, than be given a chance to.  Sitting on the steps outside the gym, I remember really clearly what Coach Renney said to me that day and how relieved it made me feel.  He said, “Olson, you can’t hurt the team from the dugout.”  I think I might be the only college softball player on the planet to have felt such joy and relief at being told they’ll be sitting for the season!  I remember him telling me that yes, skills-wise, I didn’t deserve to be here at this level, but that he kept me on the team because I worked so hard and was improving so quickly, and because I was a spark to my teammates.  He told me that for them, helping me and teaching me things and seeing me improve and have success was inspirational.  He told me that I was our team’s “Rudy”. I had been so inspired by the ability and skill of some of my teammates that year - I never thought that it could work the other way around.  My softball career, short as it was at that point, could have easily ended that day.  But Coach Renney didn’t let me quit.

How did your teammates respond to you, both as a practice player and when you eventually cracked the roster?

My teammates were really great – I know some probably questioned why Coach kept me around at first and looking back, I probably would have too! – but I think I was able to win most of them over, and I know that over time I became respected for my work ethic and for my willingness to work on and improve my game.  A lot of them took the time to help me learn things that they had probably learned playing years of minor ball but that I had never had the opportunity to.  When I did get the odd chance to get out on the field during a game in that first year, my teammates were probably more excited for me than I was (I was more terrified usually than anything else!) When I earned my first base hit that year, my captain at the time – Lesley McPherson – saved the ball for me (I still have it) and gave it to me after the game.  I’ll never forget that.

What extra work or training did you do to get your skill level up to that of your teammates?

Physically speaking, I’ve always been a decent athlete – I was pretty quick in terms of running speed and I have always had a really strong throwing arm.  Even as a young kid I could throw really hard.  I just couldn’t tell you where it was going to go…no one at SFU ever wanted to throw with me in throwing drills because it meant a lot of extra cardio training for the both of us! But I worked at it – I used to go down to the gym with a hockey net and a polysoft in my break between classes and throw balls for target practice.  I’d report my scores to my coach – “8/20 and I dented a garbage can”, “11/20 and I cracked the exit sign above a door” - but I did steadily improve.  When it came to hitting, my swing was terrible.  It was so bad that Coach Renney took one look at my right handed swing and said, “Well, I think you might make a good left handed slapper…” I didn’t even know what that meant…and so that’s how I started out offensively in my competitive softball career - on the left side as a running slapper. 

At the end of that first season, Coach Renney told me that if I wanted to have a spot on the team in the fall, that I needed to get some playing experience.  My physical toolset had developed to the point where I needed playing experience to help the mental side of my game catch up.  I needed to find a junior team.  I decided that rather than going home that summer to work, I would stay and play summer club ball.  A teammate of mine brought me out to her Junior B club team, I think it was the Fleetwood Force.  That’s where I played for the summer – I started in centerfield and my summer club coach decided to have me hit right handed, and she spent time with me, working on my right handed swing.  I found out I was a much more powerful hitter from the right side.  I got a lot of games and at bats in over that summer.  We played at Junior B provincials on Vancouver Island, advancing to and eventually losing in the final game.  The experience I gained that summer made a huge difference.  By the time fall training camp rolled around in September, I was a completely different athlete than I had been when the college season ended in May. 

Part III

When did you make the full roster at Simon Fraser?

I had been told by Coach that I was going to have to try out again for the team that fall (the fall of my second year).  When I came back from my summer playing Junior B, I was a right handed power hitter and could track down and even dive for a ball with the best of our outfielders.  I remember Coach Renney telling me that I had a shot at being a starter that year.  After having had a taste of starting for my summer team all summer, my fear was gone – I was ready to be a regular contributor to the team.  I earned a starting spot that year and went from having three “token” at-bats in my freshman year to over 100 in my second year.  I was a starter from that point on (except for the one year that I red-shirted to rehab a knee injury and gain an extra year of training without losing a year of eligibility).

What would you say is the most valuable skill that you picked up during your time at SFU?

I feel like I learned so much at SFU from both Coach Renney as well as my teammates that it’s hard to pick just one skill or lesson as the MOST valuable.  If I had to narrow it down to just one, I guess I would say that at SFU I truly learned just how far you can push yourself physically and that your attitude and your work ethic are the factors that go the furthest towards building and improving your game.

How would you describe your career at Simon Fraser?

I think “Cinderella story” best describes my career at SFU.  In 5 years I went from never really having played the game at a high level to winning an NAIA National Championship for the first time in the school’s history.  I was an unknown from a small town with no softball skills to speak of at the start, and finished being named an NAIA All American and on the NAIA National Championship All Tournament team. These were all things that I never expected and I would have thought were crazy and impossible if someone had said at the beginning that they would happen.

Part IV

How were you “discovered”, or how did you earn a spot on the roster of the Canadian National Softball Team?

While I had certainly experienced improvement and success rather quickly – I still didn’t have any idea that the national team was a possibility for me.  I had played with teammates who had been invited to Junior and Senior National Team events – but these were people who had played their whole lives.  I’d only really been playing competitively for 3 years – and while in that time I’d accomplished a lot, developing from a bench player to our starting center fielder, it never even entered my mind that I could achieve such a goal.  So in the fall of my fourth year, 1997, when I received my first letter from Softball Canada, letting me know that I’d been named to their developmental pool of athletes and inviting me to a training camp in December, I was pretty shocked.  I really felt like a bit of a tourist at my first national team camp – I mean I couldn’t believe that I was really there.  This was a whole other level than I had ever experienced.  I was training beside people that I previously had only seen at Canada Cup in uniform.  I don’t remember a whole lot about the training camp, I really was intimidated, but I did the best I could.  I guess I did well enough in that camp and then put up some decent enough numbers in my junior year at school to get myself a second invite – this time to play for the Canadian Developmental team at Canada Cup, and a chance to be selected to the 1998 World Championship team – the qualifying event for the Olympics in 2000.  Both teams met in White Rock, BC a week before the Cup began, to train and participate in intersquad scrimmages.  I was pretty excited.  So excited that I swung at an inside pitch during a scrimmage and took a rise ball off my right hand, my top hand.  I wasn’t wearing a batting glove and the force of the ball split my finger open from knuckle to tip.  I was lucky I didn’t break anything.  However, I couldn’t grip a bat – throwing was even worse.  It had been a pretty crucial point, timing wise, in the selection for that Olympic cycle. The team qualified for the Olympics that year, and the coaching staff focused on the top end of their depth chart when selecting the Sydney Olympic team.  My chance to make the Senior National Team for that cycle was over before it even began. I didn’t get another opportunity until later on, in 2001.

Softball Canada was starting a new selection cycle and my name had been placed once again in their development pool of athletes.  I was invited to attend an open regional selection camp that June. I had already graduated from SFU and I hadn’t really trained in about a year, and was really out of shape and the regional selection camp was physically painful.   Somehow I made it through and into the next selection phase, which was a centralized selection and training camp for Canada Cup.  We trained really hard – it was a pretty grueling schedule.  That camp has been affectionately designated and is fondly remembered as “Fat Camp” by the members of our 2004 Olympic team.  I think I lost 15 pounds in three weeks and at the end of it, I was thrilled when I was told I’d made the Senior National team for Canada Cup.  It was the first time I’d made the National Team. 

What was your favourite moment of your national team career?

There are a lot of favourite moments, but I would have to say the highlight of my national team career was taking the field for the first time at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.softball-olson-1-v6.jpg

What was it like competing at the Olympics, representing Canada?

The Olympics were incredible.  It’s like everything is magnified.  That feeling you get when you get a hit, or make a great catch – times it by about a million and that’s how it feels at the Olympics.  Unfortunately, take the feeling that you get when you strike out or make an error, and multiply it by a million and that’s also how it feels when things don’t go your way.  It takes our sport and magnifies it emotionally because so much is on the line, both personally and for your country! 

 

 

Part V

To help launch Softball Canada’s new Triple Play website, we interviewed former Canadian women’s national team player Sasha Olson about her softball career. In the fifth edition of the series, Olson talks about the impact softball had on her life.

What would you say were your greatest softball challenge and accomplishment?

As an athlete at the national team level I experienced a few challenges that I would deem “my greatest challenges.”  For me, my mental game hadn’t caught up to my physical game.  I had all the physical tools that someone would want as a top level softball player, but I battled with confidence constantly.  I think mentally I was behind – our game is based on failure, let’s face it, we count errors, and a solid batting average is .300 or higher.  That means 7 times out of 10 you fail!  The best players in the game, in the world, just know how to handle it better, how to “bounce” from it.  I hadn’t had the years of playing experience, the years of “failure” – so that was always a challenge for me. 

The second biggest challenge I experienced was overcoming injuries.  I tore the meniscal cartilage in my knee and needed surgery twice in my career.  I know that I’m, relatively speaking, lucky with my injuries, but I always found the setback difficult when I was injured.  I found it hard to take time off of training to heal, I always felt like it was lost time.  But sometimes resting your body is training too – sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for your game, to do nothing.  I always found that difficult.

In terms of my greatest softball accomplishment – there’s a few on the highlight reel when I close my eyes.

  • Hearing the national anthem for the first time in a Team Canada uniform at Canada Cup (my first international game ever). 
  • My first ever international home run (in Saskatoon at the Tri-Nations Cup Tournament against Chinese Taipei). 
  • A diving catch that I had no right to make at Canada Cup one year (I still don’t know how I got to that ball).
  • Beating the USA Pro Gold team on ESPN in 2001. 
  • Stepping on the podium to receive a silver medal at Pan Ams in the Dominican Republic in 2003. 
  • And definitely getting that phone call telling me I’d made the 2004 Olympic Team.  There are lots of moments I’ll remember.

Who would you say influenced your softball career the most?

I’ve had many people influence my softball career over the years in a lot of different positive ways.  Probably the one person who influenced my career the most was Coach Renney.  If he had never given me that initial chance at SFU, if he had never taken me on that first year as a project, if he had simply let me quit when I wanted to, I would never have had the experiences that I was able to have.  My softball career took the path that it did because of the chances and opportunities that I was given.

If there was one thing you could change about your softball career, what would it be?

I don’t know that I would change anything.  Would I have liked to have won a medal in the Olympics – absolutely.  I think the experiences that I did have though, have made me who I am today – and I like where I am.  When I look back, it’s the journey and the teammates and people that I was fortunate enough to share it with that I value the most. 

What is the biggest impact that the sport has had on your life?

I’m a huge believer in sport developing personal skills and character.  Attitude, respect for yourself, confidence, work ethic, leadership, being a team player – all of this are emphasized and developed through participation in sport.  I feel that my involvement in sport has all helped develop these qualities in me.  

Balance

By: Joey Lyejoey_lye.jpg

Managing life as an athlete can be a tough challenge.  Sacrifices are abundant in this business, yet I always find everything to be worth it in the end.  I think the trick to deciding if an athletic lifestyle at the international level is for you is to ask yourself not only how much you are willing to put aside during the upcoming years, but how much you are willing to put in; why give up family time, nights out with friends, chocolate cake, etc, if you are not willing to put all of your effort into what is in front of you?  On the bright side, the sacrifices are worth the friendships, competition, personal growth, international experiences, and pride that come along with putting your country’s uniform on.

I am in an interesting position because not only am I currently playing softball for Canada, but I am coaching University Softball and Hockey, as well as studying to receive a Masters in Coaching and Athletic Administration.  If finding balance while training, eating and sleeping right, and competing wasn’t enough, now throw in coaching two NCAA programs as well as weekly school assignments.  Oh yeah, and I have a dog.  Maybe I’m just crazy?

The first step in finding balance in my mind, is knowing yourself.  I know that I thrive off of being busy, so it makes sense for me to overload my plate.  The next step is prioritizing and getting into a routine.  If training, playing, eating right, coaching and school are all important to me, I will find the time to get it all done.  While having lunch with a former high school teacher last year, he mentioned the following: “It’s not what you have time for, it’s what you make time to do”.  It really resonated with me and I think about that all the time now.

Getting into a routine that allows time for everything you want to be involved with is most challenging at its onset.  Find a friend or family member who is willing to keep you honest for the first couple of weeks, as well as a motivational quote to stick on your mirror, and once you get through the first three weeks of your new routine it will feel more like a habit and be much easier to stick to. 

Finally, when trying to find balance in your life, allow yourself to make time for a dinner with friends, a movie night on the couch, or an impromptu day of sightseeing every now and then to keep your body and mind fresh.  

Queens of the Diamond

Women’s involvement in the softball and baseball began over a century ago.  Through the years many things have changed for women from the style of uniform to the types of leagues.  Women have played alongside men during the Bloomer Girls era, where they toured through America challenging men’s teams to a game along the way.  There was the All American Girls Baseball League, which started out as the All American Girls Softball League, which was implemented to replace men’s baseball during the war. Today softball has many leagues of various levels throughout the world.  Women can represent their country on a national stage, play for their school team, or play in a community league for fun. 

        old_softball_photo.png               universiadegold.jpg

 Softball and Sportsmanship (Part 2)

The last time we wrote about softball and sportsmanship, we told you about the remarkable story of the University of Western Oregon and the University of Central Washington’s sportsmanship with an injured player and a game-winning home run. This time, there is another heartwarming story from the diamond that we’d like to share with you.

During a high school junior varsity game in Indianapolis, Indiana, one team was easily beating the other. Roncalli High School had been walked nine times against Marshall Community School in only an inning and a half. The game was set to be a beat down, until Roncalli, a team that hadn’t lost in more than two and a half years, decided to forfeit.

Why? It was Marshall’s first ever softball game. The team showed up to the game with minimal equipment - five balls, two bats, and no helmets, cleats, or sliding pads - and a coach and players who had barely even heard of softball, let alone played it. Rather than playing the lopsided game, the Roncalli squad decided to spend the time on a more worthwhile pursuit – practicing with the Marshall team and teaching them the fundamentals of the game. The Marshall players learned how to run the bases, pitch, and hit.

espn_marshallsoftball01_576.jpg

The Roncalli Lady Rebels didn’t stop there. After the practice, the players, coaches, and parents rallied to raise some money for the Marshall team. They were able to fundraise over $2500, along with dozens of used bats, gloves, helmets, and other equipment. The generosity of Roncalli inspired the community, and Reebok donated jerseys to Marshall, while they were also given other resources such as free batting practice time at an indoor facility and a field refurbishment.

For the rest of the season, Marshall never won a game, although they did continually improve. Roncalli continued their success, reaching the state playoffs. And although the two teams had drastically different backgrounds leading up to that first game of the season, the game of softball brought them together and united them, for the love of the game.

Read More:

Rick Reilly, “For the Love of the Game”: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=5218228
(May 25, 2010)

http://www.blastprogram.com/?page_id=414
http://sportsleaderusa.blogspot.ca/2010/04/roncalli-softball-compassion-and.html

 

Karen Snelgrove, former national team player and Olympian, reminisces about the early days of her softball career.

Softball Career Path

By: Karen Snelgrove

There is often a story behind the start of an athlete’s career.  Maybe an older sibling or parent played or coached and it would be a natural family activity to follow along. Not for me.  I have no recollection of getting my first ball glove or being taught how to throw and catch. It was something that I could just do and spent all of my free time playing.  I would take my glove to school and play catch at recess or “squeeze” with the neighbourhood kids after school.

             When I was seven, I started playing tee ball on a house league team. When I compare it to the way we see tee ball played today, we were good! There wasn’t anyone in the outfield picking dandelions or overthrowing every base as runners made their way around to score.  Maybe I have a distorted view of reality, but I remember us snagging ground balls and making the long throw from third to first for the out. We hit the ball hard and threw runners out at the plate from the outfield. That is how I remember it anyway.  

             Back in those days, my school had a school softball team for grade five and six students.  When I was in grade four, I tried out along with my friend who also lived for playing ball.  As grade fours, we both made the team!  I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I went home one day and told my parents that I was the pitcher.   I must have been goofing around pretending I could pitch or maybe it was because I could throw overhand pretty well and they just told me to pitch. My dad’s reaction was less than positive.  “I don’t like that idea.  You’re going to get hurt!” was his response.  That didn’t last long.  I don’t remember ever hearing any more about it.

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             The next summer, as a 10 year old, I signed up for my first year of house league softball in Kitchener. My first pitching instruction was on my aunt and uncle’s front lawn in London, Ontario, from their friend, Carol Kish, who had pitched at the senior level. She told me to stagger my feet on the rubber. What a difference that made! 

             Near the end of my second year of house league, I was asked to join the all-star team for a few tournaments.  I was hooked on the competition, the challenge of pitching and the excitement of playing on a team. There was a diamond at the end of my street where I spent hours throwing thousands of pitches that my dad caught (or took in the shins!) every summer until I went away to University. 

             One year when I was playing Bantam, I won an award that Softball Ontario provided each year.  It provided money to a player to help develop her skills.  With that assistance I was able to get some regular coaching from former pitcher and highly respected clinician, Doug Neil. For a few winters, my dad and I would make the trip on Saturday mornings to Wingham, Ontario to work with Mr. Neil in the high school’s gym. It was in that gym where my change-up, my “go to” pitch developed. Eventually, we worked on my “low rise” which appeared as if it was thrown right down the middle and then just hung long enough for batters to swing underneath. For the next few years, we would head to Wingham when my game needed a bit of a tune-up.

             As a seven year old playing tee ball, I had no idea that softball would take me around the world, pay for my education or even take me to the Olympics.  I only knew that I loved being on the diamond with a glove on my hand and a ball cap on my head. 

  

 Softball and Sportsmanship

Whether it’s an international level competition, such as an ISF World Championship, or a local recreational league game, sportsmanship is an important aspect to the game of softball.                      

While sportsmanship could simply be regarded as fair play and good character, some players often go above and beyond. One notable example took place in April 2008, during an NCAA Division II game between Central Washington and Western Oregon. Western Oregon player Sara Tuchosky hit a three-run home run during the second inning. In her excitement to round the bases, she missed touching first. She tried to turn around too quickly, resulting in her tearing the ACL in her right knee. As she lay on the ground in pain, the umpires determined that if any of her teammates tried to help her around the bases, she would be ruled out. And so, Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace, two Central Washington infielders, decided to help Tuchosky around the bases. The two carried Tuchosky, stopping at every base so that she could touch it.

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Source: www.values.com

What happened that day on the softball diamond is enough to make any sports fan teary-eyed. It’s even more remarkable considering the circumstances: Tuchosky was a career .153 hitter while Mallory Holtman was the career home run leader at Central Washington. Tuchosky’s hit that day was her first, and only, collegiate home run. And the game ended 4-2 in favor of Western Oregon, meaning that Central Washington’s good sportsmanship ended up causing them to lose the game. Even worse, it was a critical game, ending Central Washington’s chances of winning the conference and advancing to the playoffs.

The act inspired a full-length Sports Illustrated article (“The Way It Should Be”, June 2009), a segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, along with articles in nearly every major newspaper in the country.

While it is one prominent example of sportsmanship within softball, many other acts of good sportsmanship take place every day on softball diamonds around the world. Whether it’s acknowledging the good play of a teammate or opponent, or simply shaking hands with the opposing team and umpire at the end of the game, sportsmanship is essential to the sport of softball. By following simple guidelines such as fair play, holding respect for your opponent and your teammates, and upholding the decision of the umpire and other officials, softball can be an enjoyable sport for everyone.

Read more:

“Central Washington Offers the Ultimate Act of Sportsmanship” (April 28, 2008)

http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/columns/story?columnist=hays_graham&id=3372631

 

 

FUN FACT: The score of the first softball game (held in Chicago between Yale and Harvard students, with a rolled up boxing glove as a ball and a broom handle as a stick) was 44-40. Source: http://totallygirlssoftball.com/blog/unusual-facts-about-softball/