When Ali Aguilar was a grade-schooler watching pitchers like Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott compete in the 2004 and ’08 Olympics, the aspiring young softballer dreamed of one day wearing the USA uniform herself.
But then softball (along with baseball) was abruptly yanked from the Olympics after 2008, the first sports axed since polo in 1936. The Olympic dreams of youngsters like Aguilar had to be put on hold — maybe forever, some feared. Softball was deemed to be not global enough, and the U.S. too dominant (though Japan actually won the gold in ’08 after three straight titles by America). The IOC rejected several attempts to reinstate the sport.
But now it’s back — at least, on a one-time basis. Under a new provision, Olympic host cities are able to propose a small number of sports to be played just in those Games, starting with Tokyo in 2020. And the Japanese organizers submitted softball and baseball, two wildly popular sports in the country. The proposal was approved by the IOC two days before the Opening Ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro in August, 2016.
Now Aguilar, four years after her glittering University of Washington career ended, is finally a softball Olympian at age 25. And she finds herself as a teammate of both Osterman and Abbott, two legends who have come back in their mid-30s to resume the gold-medal chase that was abruptly taken away from them for more than a decade.
“At first, it was hard for me to wrap my head around,’’ Aguilar said with a laugh in a recent telephone interview. “I was like, am I supposed to be here? It’s cool now.”
Aguilar and her U.S. teammates are scheduled to leave for Tokyo on Saturday. But first, the softball Olympians had to live this past year with the fear that after such a long absence, they would once again miss out on the Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Games were postponed in March of 2020 and pushed back to 2021 — but as UW softball coach Heather Tarr, an assistant on the Olympic squad, said Tuesday, “You’re not going to believe it until you actually get there, you know? It’s a weird feeling.”
Aguilar said of the year delay, “When that happened, it was kind of tough for some of us, because it was such a long time coming. Some of us were on the team for four years, since 2016. We were so close to having the opportunity to bring it back after 12 years. And for it to get canceled would be kind of a bummer to not be able to live my dream out.”
But despite ongoing rumors that the ’21 Olympics were also endangered, the Games remain on schedule. Softball was chosen by the Japanese organizers as the sport, along with soccer, to kick off the festivities on July 20.
Aguilar is a key part of the U.S. team as the starting second baseman and middle-of-the-order hitter. She was a shortstop for Washington, so entrenched that in the year she overlapped with then-freshman Sis Bates, it was Bates who moved to second. The Team USA shortstop is former UCLA player Delaney Spaulding.
It is an eclectic group of American players, divided into what Tarr jokingly calls “the olds” — the ones who stayed with the program through the Olympic darkness, like Osterman, Abbott and others — and “the youngs,” recent collegiate stars like Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles from UCLA and Dejah Mulipola from Arizona.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Tarr said. “You’ve got a really diverse group in terms of age and experience.”
Aguilar, who turns 26 in August, is right in the middle of the youngs and olds in both categories. She has accumulated considerable international experience with Team USA, including a key role on the squad that clinched the Olympic berth by winning the World Championships in 2018. They defeated Japan, the host country, in extra innings in the title game.
Aguilar also has two seasons playing professionally in Japan for Toyota Motor in Nagoya. Not only is that far more lucrative than the pro league in the U.S. (Aguilar had a brief stint with the Houston-based Scrap Yard Dogs), but fan support is ample, loud and boisterous.
“They love softball. They love baseball,’’ she said. “They had a ton of fans in Japan when I played for them. They had — they’re called cheerleaders, but it’s kind of like a band. And they’re like cheering the whole game. They play in baseball stadiums, so it definitely feels more like you’re a professional. Sometimes the softball fields can feel kind of small.
“A lot of fans come, and they’re committed fans. They will be screaming, especially the Japanese little girls. They kind of freak out. And they love Americans. So even when we go over there with USA, they’re there.”
Tarr believes the Japanese experience was a formative one for Aguilar, a significant part of her growth since leaving the Huskies. Tarr used to urge Aguilar to be more assertive, telling her that her initials, AA, stood for “Alpha Ali.” Now that attitude has become internalized.
“She went from really trying to find out who she was as a player and as a collegiate athlete, to now really knowing who she is,” Tarr said. “And to be able to see that quiet confidence in her that you always knew could be there, but all these questions needed to be answered for her.
“She’s super analytical. She’s really diligent with doing it well and right, and she’s really, truly found her way. It’s just a cool thing to see and witness.”
Both Tarr and Aguilar expect this to be a highly competitive Olympics among the six competitors — USA, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Italy and Australia. Former and current Huskies competing, besides Aguilar, are Danielle Lawrie, Jenn Salling and Victoria Hayward (Canada) and Gabbie Plain (Australia).
“Every game at the Olympics, we’re going to expect it is going to be close,’’ Aguilar said. “It’s going to be a fight for every single game. I think we have to pay attention and respect the fact that softball in all parts of the world has developed and gotten a lot better.”
Aguilar will be competing with the signature DeMarini bat she helped design, which features a cherry blossom motif. She said that it has multiple layers of meaning — foremost as a tribute to her paternal grandmother, who grew up in Japan. Cherry blossoms are the national flower of Japan, and Aguilar attended many Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festivals while playing in Nagoya. Of course, it is also a prominent blossom in the quad at her alma mater, the University of Washington. Finally, cherry blossoms were part of the logo on the U.S. team’s exhibition tour to prepare for the Olympics.
“At first, I felt, oh, cherry blossoms are pretty and go along with our tour,’’ she said. “But then I realized there’s a deeper meaning, too.”
After the Olympics, Aguilar will compete in a unique professional softball league for six weeks beginning in late August in Rosemont, Ill., called Athletes Unlimited. About 50 of the world’s best — including Bates — will play on teams that change weekly. Players create the league rules and retain equity in the league. The top four players become new captains each week and draft their teams from scratch for the next round of games, which will all be televised or streamed on a variety of networks.
After years of trying to get pro softball to take hold in the U.S., is this 2-year-old league the answer? Tarr thinks it just might be.
“It’s a really, really cool opportunity for these women to play at the next level,’’ Tarr said. “I was a little sketchy on it before it went off last year, but it’s a pretty cool way for softball to go professionally. Because, truly, are there enough women right now in our game that could build a professional league? No. Are there 45 to 50 women who are pretty damn fun and entertaining to watch, Sis Bates being one of them? Yes. And it gives a chance to kind of ‘Fantasy League’ it a little bit.”
After that ends, Aguilar plans to take a much-needed break. And then, it would be just about time to try out for the next U.S. national team. Softball won’t be in the 2024 Paris Olympics, but there is hope that it will return for Los Angeles in 2028 on the same host-nation provision that brought it to Tokyo.
“Right now, I’m just playing it moment by moment,’’ Aguilar said. “But if you ask me right now what I would want to do, I would want to keep playing softball.”
Dreams this powerful are hard to give up.