Canada makes long-awaited return to Olympic softball diamond with shutout win
Victory over Mexico also marks 1st Canadian competition at Tokyo 2020
FUKUSHIMA, Japan — After waiting 689 days since its last international softball game and enduring a pandemic, the Canadian women's softball team didn't miss a beat, defeating Mexico 4-0 on Wednesday in the opening game of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The Canadians raced onto the Azuma Baseball Stadium field under a scorching sun in Fukushima to begin the game, emotions clearly running at an all-time high for Canada's softball players.
For all the waiting and wondering if they'd even get this chance, after waiting 13 years for softball to once again be part of the Olympics program and a year postponement, the Canadians weren't going to let the moment pass by them.
Canada racked up four hits in the first inning and scored twice, mounting an early 2-0 lead on Mexico and they never looked back.
WATCH | Canada blanks Mexico:
"We're ready to go and we're ready to win a gold medal," said Canada's starting pitcher, Sara Groenewegen.
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The win was extra special for her.
Just three years earlier, almost to the exact day, she nearly died after contracting Legionnaires disease.
"I think it's a very full-circle moment for me. It happened on July 23. The three-year anniversary of me almost dying. To be in Japan and be with my team and be in this moment is really special," she told CBC Sports.
"You can't make this up. It's incredible and pretty breathtaking for me."
WATCH | Groenewegen's incredible journey to Tokyo:
Groenewegen's remarkable road to recovery, after spending 10 days in a medically induced coma clinging to her life in the summer of 2018, has been a mark of inspiration for her teammates.
She was brilliant in the early stages of the game, throwing just 20 pitches through the first two innings and retiring six-straight Mexican batters.
Groenewegen was pulled after four innings, finishing the day with three strikeouts, one walk, no hits and 54 pitches.
"It was a complete team effort and a great win," she said.
Canadian first baseman Jenn Salling padded the lead in the third inning, smacking a ball over the right field fence for a home run to make it 3-0. Canada added more insurance in the 4th inning after Kelsey Harshman's RBI single to right field to increase the lead to 4-0.
"I'm just feeling so proud right now. There's a really cool sense of calm confidence amongst our team. I really give that feeling to our preparation. We've prepared for so long," Salling said.
WATCH | Canada's Jenn Salling smashes home run:
Jenna Caira took over on the mound for Canada to pitch the fifth. Danielle Lawrie, who was part of the 2008 team that competed in Beijing took over in the sixth.
The game was played nearly 250 kilometres away from the heart of the Tokyo Games in Fukushima inside a baseball stadium that had more than 14,000 empty seats due to fans not being allowed to attend.
The Canadians were in complete control from start to finish – a dream start to their Olympic journey in Japan.
"We've been waiting so long for this moment. We're just excited to officially be here and opening the Tokyo Olympics," Salling added.
The last time Canada and Mexico met, the Mexicans won 2-1 at the Olympic qualifier in Surrey, B.C., delaying the Canadians quest to get to Tokyo. They would defeat Brazil the following day to earn their ticket to the Games.
The victory at the Olympics against Mexico was certainly a measure of revenge for Canada.
"The last time we played them we didn't like the way things finished," said head coach Mark Smith.
"It was nice to come out in the first inning and make a statement."
Coming into the event Canadian head coach Mark Smith said he believed no team in the world was more prepared going into the Olympics than Canada.
Displaced from home
They've been on the road for five months together, deciding this past winter they would leave family and friends behind in Canada to train in the United States. Sacrifices Smith says the team has been willing to make to achieve their golden goal.
"Since we set foot in Japan this team has been very, very locked in to be doing the things they need to do to get done," Smith said.
"We know what we're here to do and what we're capable of doing."
Softball is returning to the Olympic program for the first time since Beijing 2008. Canada is one of four countries that has qualified for all five Olympic tournaments along with Japan, USA and Australia.
The Canadian team competing in these Games includes four players who were on that last Olympic team which finished fourth at Beijing 2008 – Danielle Lawrie, Kaleigh Rafter, Lauren Regula and Jenn Salling.
There are six teams competing in the women's softball event: The United States, Japan, Canada (ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in the world, respectively), Mexico (5), Australia (8) and Italy (9).
Each team will play each other once in the round-robin stage. But there are no playoffs.
The teams with the two best records play for gold on July 27. The third- and fourth-place teams will play for the bronze medal earlier that day.
It's a quick turnaround for the Canadians. They're back on the Azuma Baseball Stadium field Thursday morning at 9 a.m ET in Fukushima against the top-ranked United States.