Olympics critical to growing softball in Canada
IOC to vote Sept. 8 on whether or not to bring it back in 2020
Caitlin Lever is not ready to give up on her dream of competing in another Olympics.
But for the veteran softball outfielder and for others from Canada, the U.S., Australia and Venezuela competing in the Canadian Open Fastpitch tournament this week in Surrey, B.C., it won't just be the usual issues of age, health and performance that determine a player's place in the Games.
Politics will also come into play.
Softball has not been played in the Olympics since 2008, as a result of an International Olympic Committee vote in 2005. But the IOC will decide in Buenos Aires on Sept. 8, whether to bring it back for the 2020 Games.
Lever, 28, played for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Games, but she does not know if she will be competing in seven years. She is starting to move on with her life, having taken an assistant coach's position at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
But if not for herself, Lever hopes softball makes a comeback for the sake of her younger teammates and the sport.
"It's such a big sport and it's worldwide and there's so many kids that play it and dream it," said Lever, whose team faces Japan in an evening game Thursday.
"The future is bright and it's just starting. We're just breaking the mold now of what softball's capable of."
Currently, Canada's top players chase dreams of playing internationally in tournaments, fledgling pro circuits in the U.S. and Japan and playing in the world championships, held every two years.
Lever, the American-born daughter of former NHLer Don Lever, said an Olympic presence will make a large difference when it comes to growing the sport in Canada.
"I think the love for the game will always be there and will keep the sport going," said Lever. "But I think it's important to have something like that to reach, to keep people in the sport longer.
"I think we can retain more if they knew that was somewhere they could go, especially top elite athletes that can pick several sports. It's important to keep them here.
"It always sounds a bit sweeter when you're trying to get kids to come play or vets to stay on board instead of moving on with their lives and jobs. When you've got that cherry there in front of you, it's a hard thing to pass up."
'Would be great for Canada'
Acting Canadian head coach Dave Paetkau said having softball in the Olympics will also help grow Canada's powerhouse program. Team Canada is ranked fourth in the world and stands to gain financially if the sport returns to the Games.
"[Sport Canada] funding for Olympic programs is a lot higher, so it makes a big difference," said Paetkau. "I know when [softball] was in Olympics, there was a big push [in terms of interest] in Canada and, with us being ranked in the top four in the world, there's a good chance for us to get a medal at the Olympics, which would be great for Canada."
Paetkau, who is running the team while head coach Mark Smith prepares for the upcoming Canada Summer Games, said a return to the Olympics will help raise the talent level here and elsewhere.
"It brings in more players to play the game, which means we have a better chance of having top athletes playing softball, and that's what we're looking for to compete at the international level," said Paetkau. "And that will happen with most of the countries if softball does get back in the Olympics. It will just pick up the game and make it more exciting."
'People were very upset'
Softball's exclusion from the Olympics is a source of discontent even for players who were not with the program when Canada placed fourth in Beijing.
"It was really upsetting when it got taken out to begin with," said pitcher Sara Plourde, who is in her first season with Team Canada. "I think many people were very upset by that, so I think 2020, it's going to be huge to see the sport back there, even (for) the girls this age, knowing that eventually they can play on an Olympic team again."
Canada entered Thursday's play with a 2-0 mark following a 3-0 victory over Australia on Wednesday. The Canadians, who have just two losses, are off to one of their best starts to a season.
It remains to be seen how many players will be with Team Canada in 2020, but a favourable IOC vote will drive some to keep chasing their Olympic dreams.
"With and without it, I absolutely have the incentive to keep playing, but [a possible Olympic berth] is definitely a booster to keep playing," said Plourde, a Bristol, Conn., native who, like Lever, plays for Canada by virtue of dual citizenship. "I would love to play in the Olympics one day. I'll be 30, we'll see. You never know."
'We're just hoping'
Paetkau, who runs a softball academy in Abbotsford, B.C., expects most potential Olympians to be recruited from the current teenage talent pool. He said softball's inclusion and increased Sport Canada funding would enable players to train for up to 30 hours per week without having to worry about working elsewhere.
IOC members will decide whether to return softball and baseball, also dropped after 2008, and reinstate wrestling after it was excluded from the 2016 Olympics. Squash is a candidate for first-time entry.
Vetern infielder Jen Yee, a 26-year-old with a masters in engineering, is postponing her career while she toils on the diamond. Yee does not know how much longer she will compete, but shares Lever's desire to see softball back in the Games.
"I think we're all in the same boat," the Surrey, B.C., native said. "We're just hoping."