The Olympic softball roller-coaster threw my entire career for a loop

The Olympic softball roller-coaster threw my entire career for a loop

'At the age of 29, it was an all-or-nothing decision'

By Jenn Salling for CBC Sports
May 29, 2019

August 3, 2016.  A day the softball community will never forget.

That morning, I was lying in bed at my parent’s house in Vancouver, scrolling through feeds on my cell phone. I came across this tweet from the IOC Media. “IOC approves 5 new sports for @tokyo2020 #baseballsoftball #karate #skateboard #sportsclimbing #surfing.” I remember feeling such mixed emotions:  happiness, disappointment, shock, relief. I wish I felt pure joy right off the bat, but there was more anger and resentment inside me than anything else.

Jenn Salling first joined the women's national softball team in 2006. (Photo submitted by Jenn Salling) Jenn Salling first joined the women's national softball team in 2006. (Photo submitted by Jenn Salling)

I guess I was not over the fact many young women’s dreams were still being crushed. We were back in the 2020 Olympics for the first time in twelve years … but Paris had already declared softball will be off the roster again in 2024. I have great respect for our sport’s global reach, our loyal fan base and our ability to grow the Olympic brand. Decisions about Olympic inclusion and exclusion have such significant impact on so many lives. So, yes, I am happily on my 2020 journey at the moment, but I am also experiencing emotions that are all too familiar from the disheartening moment when softball was removed after Beijing 2008.

In the years after that decision, I was drafted into the National Professional Fastpitch (NPF) League, playing for the USSSA Florida Pride. I was a member of the NPF from 2011-2014. In 2011 and 2012 I guess I could have been considered a part-time member of the National Team, as I juggled playing for both NPF and Team Canada. In 2013 and 2014 I decided to play solely in the NPF. After 3 years with the Pride, I was traded to the Pennsylvania Rebellion for the 2014 season. In 2013, I had noticed that my love for competing was slowly fading. 2014 rolled around and that feeling came on a little stronger. Following my season with the Rebellion, I I needed to figure out why I was still competing; softball and baseball still had not returned to the Olympics. What did I want to do? In the Fall of 2014, I left the NPF entirely and reached out to the current national team head coach, Mark Smith.  He was open to inviting me back to the selection camp in January of 2015.


Redefining the team

Our national softball team culture has gone through serious transition since 2008. We redefined our core values, decided what we wanted our team to be about. We worked hard at developing a mindset that would lead to championships. We came up with the motto, “FEAR THE LEAF” (my Father actually has this tattooed on his leg now) which represents our team identity. We are defined by our core values. We are relentless, all in, connected and proud. In 2015, Canada hosted the Pan American Games. That year we started to understand what we wanted Team Canada to be about and how to live it every day. The cool part is, we were still working on it when we made history. We won the Canadian women’s national team’s second gold medal since 1983. We beat the United States 4-2 in extra innings.

That was one of the most intense games I ever played in my life. We were in a huge sea of red and white. Flags waving everywhere. Noise so loud you could barely communicate with teammates to your left and right. Canada and the United States were scoreless through seven innings. The 8th inning came around; it was still 0-0. We scored four runs in the top of the 8th on sacrifice bunts, U.S. defensive errors and clutch hitting. In the bottom of the 8th, the United States could only put up two and that was all Canada needed to win the gold.

Ever since 2015, I had been going back and forth in my mind about retiring and moving on to the next chapter of my life.  I was admitted into the University of Washington’s intercollegiate athletic leadership/higher education Master’s program. I became a member of the U of W Softball staff as a graduate assistant manager. The NCAA coaching was on my mind. I wanted to be a collegiate softball coach, so I was trying to figure out if I should continue to play or become a college coach. School and learning the ropes of being a high-level college softball coach consumed every part of me.

My training took a major hit. Being a high performing athlete fell low on my totem pole of priorities. Graduating with a Master’s, and being a staff member to the University of Washington Softball Program both came first. I knew what it looked and felt like to train as a professional athlete and I was not doing that. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if that was the route I wanted to go.


Making a decision

The summer after graduating was rough. Our team struggled and at the end of the season, our head coach sent me a very honest and direct email regarding my performance. The message read, “JSal [my nickname], if you want to make a run at this, it’s time to make some changes.” He was absolutely right.

I had a decision to make. If I were to continue to play, I was all in for 2020. If not, it wasn’t worth the investment, I would hang up my cleats for good. At the age of 29, it was an all-or-nothing decision. I had my Master’s in education and it was perfect timing to be 100 per cent invested in myself, our team and making a run at another Olympics.

Thankfully I have a support system of people that make the 'All-In' commitment possible. When my playing career comes to an end, whether it be this summer or next August in Tokyo, I’ll be able to say that I have no regrets. I left it all in the weight room and on the field.

(Top and bottom large photo submitted by Jenn Salling; Middle large photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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