Softball goes hard for Olympic glory
SOFTBALL: After 10 years in the Olympic wilderness, Softball Australia are ramping up preparations to catapult the national team back into medal contention for Tokyo 2020.
On the back of an injection of funding from the Australian Institute of Sport, the Aussie Spirit will have a semi-professional, three-month stint in the USA this year.
The team will base itself at Missouri Western University from May to July to compete in the National Pro Fastpitch League before heading to the world championships in August, which will likely serve as Olympic qualifiers.
It's the boost the sport needed to be back challenging the world's best when the sport returns to the Olympic stage in two years' time.
"Our athletes and girls since 2010, almost seven years, they were only getting maybe 20-30 games a year and half of those were here in Australia at the national championship where the standard has dropped over the last 20 years," Softball Australia CEO Chet Gray said.
"I had maybe three or four players that would travel the world, that play in Japan in the US and that was it. So this is a huge boost.
"We went from 20-25 games ... what we've done now is we've consolidated it, because going to this NPF - National Pro Fastpitch League - basically it's 50 games against the top professional women's athletes in the world, that's significant for us.
"It will get our players, as a lead up, game-fit. They will get mentally tough and all that, because they won't be used to it."
Australia has a history of Olympic success in softball, having medalled at the last four Games the sport was included in - three bronze and a silver since Atlanta in 1996.
The sport was cut following Beijing in 2008 and so too was funding with an estimated $1.2 million being lost during those years. But late last year the AIS was granted a further $10 million in a targeted drive for Tokyo specifically for new or returning sports.
On top of the time in the USA completely committed to training at the top facilities, learning from professional outfits like the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and MLB's Kansas City Royals and playing against the best athletes in the world, they'll have their first test in our own backyard.
The Asia Pacific Cup will be held at Blacktown from Thursday to Sunday with six of the top 12 teams competing, including world number one Japan.
Australia will field two teams, the national Spirit side and an All Stars team of players pushing for top selection.
It's another step along the path of preparation that Gray thinks will have them podium ready come 2020.
"There's something about Aussies and what I call stepping up at the right time," he said.
"The Aussie Spirit, the Australian women's softball program, has done it since '96.
"I just think if the challenge is put out in front of them and we have that opportunity, yeah, I feel comfortable that we'll be right there in the medal contentions."