Canada's softball Olympians enjoying warm reception from Japanese hosts
Team welcomed back to city of Anjo, where it trained ahead of tournament in 2018
The Canadian women's softball team has settled in following its arrival in Japan earlier this month for the delayed Tokyo Olympics and is hoping to win a medal in the sport for the first time.
Backed by supportive hosts in the city of Anjo, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, the team has adjusted well to the long journey and COVID-19 countermeasures in place for all foreigners entering Japan and is tuning up for the six-team tournament.
Canada will play its first game of the competition against Mexico on July 21 in Fukushima Prefecture, about two hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, as softball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008.
Veteran utility player Joey Lye says the vibe within the team is good despite the circumstances of having to play in a pandemic.
"We are coping. The fact that we are here, and the Olympics are 'go,' we're excited to play," Lye said this week. "We are focused on playing and happy to be here. For a number of us, this is our last go with this team, so we are soaking up every day."
The 34-year-old Lye says the team has been lifted by the warm welcome it has received in Anjo, the same place the team held a training camp prior to the 2018 world championships.
"Our hosts here in Anjo are so supportive," Lye said. "Even throughout the pandemic, they were posting on social media, saying they couldn't wait for us to be back.
"Our first game, a couple of days ago, the mayor of Anjo came out and said how supportive he is of us and that we are his home team," Lye said. "There is a lot of support in the area and that has made us feel at home. We have been here before and trained here before, so that helps as well."
Lye's teammate, outfielder Victoria Hayward, seconded her opinion about the setup in Anjo.
"We've come here twice before ... so we've built a pretty awesome relationship with the people here and they've just been amazing hosts for us," Hayward said. "So they are helping us with all of our meals. We're able to go from the hotel to the field to a special weight room that they've prepared for us and back to the hotel."
There was a minor dustup earlier in their stay, however, when some team members posted comments about some of the food they were served.
Lye said it was a tempest in a teapot.
"There is always an adjustment when we are traveling around. It was a misunderstanding of a post on social media," Lye said. "It was nothing too big. We are really enjoying our hosts here. They are providing us with everything we need. They are being super accommodating. We are grateful for everything we are getting, despite what could be misconstrued via social media."
Mark Smith, the coach of the women's team, offered an apology on Twitter about the matter, noting that there was no intent to offend anybody and that players were just posting personal opinions.
Though fans will not be permitted at games played during the Olympics, that is not the case for the warmup games Canada has taken part in.
"We have had a couple of games since we have been here, and they have allowed fans in the stands," Lye said. "We had a few people observe our practice the other day."
Lye, who was the softball coach at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., for three years, believes the lack of spectators at the Games won't be a factor.
"The different tournaments that we have played in, we have played in so many different environments," Lye said. "We have played with thousands of people in the stands and with barely anybody in the stands. For us, it is just a matter of focusing on the game and what we are there to do, regardless of if there are fans in the stands or not."
Lye and most of her teammates will be participating in their first Olympics and says it will be a real thrill.
"Being a part of this program for 12 years and having helped create the culture that we have, it's been a long road to get to this point and an exciting road," Lye said. "Just a few years ago, when they announced the sport would be back in the Olympics, it kind of rejuvenated the program, and the culture around softball in general."
Lye noted the squad does have players with Olympic experience.
"We have four (players) who have been to the Olympics previously, and everybody else has not, so there is a lot of excitement about it being the first time for many of us and for the four who have been to rewrite their story," Lye said.
Lye's story is an interesting one, as she played both ice hockey and softball at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
"I chose my college based on where I could get a good education, play softball and play hockey," Lye said. "So that allowed me to narrow my search and allow me to land on Williams College in Massachusetts."
Lye admitted her first love was hockey.
"As a young child it was my dream to play for the women's national team," she said. "Growing up I wanted to be a professional athlete, for as long as I can remember. The dream was always in hockey. The opportunity just presented itself with softball. I love softball as well and was able to pursue that opportunity."
Lye made it clear that Team Canada wants the gold here.
"Our goal is to be on the top of that podium. We have worked extremely hard to put ourselves in a position where that's a reality. Two weeks from now, that's our hope and dream and our goal.
"I think it's going to be an extremely competitive tournament," Lye said. "The six teams that are there are all extremely competitive and have top-notch pitching. Every single game is going to be an exciting one. At the end of the day, we are good enough to be on the top of that podium."
When asked if family back home has been sending the team messages of concern, Lye said that was not the case.
"All we are getting from home are lots of messages of support," she said. "For us as athletes, we try pretty hard not to read or listen to a lot of what's happening in the media, and just stay focused on practising and playing.
Joined national team at 16
"I think a lot of our families are aware of that fact and so they continue to feed us with the support we want and need and encourage us through it," Lye said. "They know that Softball Canada and the COC (Canadian Olympic Committee) will take care of us. They know there are a lot of measures in place surrounding this Olympic Games to keep Japan and the athletes safe."
Hayward says the team is looking forward to seeing the Olympic Village.
"I think we're excited to see that, but we're more just excited to experience it together," Hayward said. "So doesn't matter what it looks like or what it is."
Hayward, who was the youngest player ever to join the national team when she made her first appearance at 16 in 2009, confessed that one of the concerns within the squad was about coffee.
"We've made sure that there's a good coffee selection. That's one of the big things we're worried about," Hayward said. "But truthfully, we've played in all sorts of environments, so we know that Japan is top of the line in everything they do, their attention to detail is awesome. Everything seems to have a purpose. They're so logical. It's just everything always makes sense when you're in Japan."
Lye had a message for all of her compatriots back home that are following the team.
"We really appreciate everybody's support. It's been a long 15 months for everybody," Lye said. "With the delay of the Olympics, the daily training grind has been so different and pretty tough. It is amazing to see how much support we have from home. Keep it coming and thanks for following."