Canadian softball players hope pro league can continue sport's Olympic momentum
Victoria Hayward, Sara Groenewegen to play in Athletes Unlimited weeks after earning bronze
Since Tokyo, it's been quite the journey for Sara Groenewegen's bronze medal.
The medal travelled to Vancouver, Whistler and Kelowna. It's been in coffee shops and restaurants. It spent plenty of time in its owner's trusted fanny pack.
And it even watched as the Canadian softball pitcher received her Olympic tattoo.
"My tattoo artist started tearing up, holding it in his hand," Groenewegen said.
"That's how much of an impact it has on people. So it's really cool to share that with random strangers."
For Groenewegen, the medal belongs just as much to Canada as it does herself. That's why she's made such a point of taking it with her everywhere she goes, to share her Olympic joy with the rest of the country — and grow the sport in the process.
WATCH | Canada wins Olympic softball bronze:
Now, the 26-year-old Surrey, B.C., native has her medal in Rosemont, Ill., near Chicago, where she'll play in the second season of the professional women's softball league Athletes Unlimited.
On the field, she'll be joined by Canadian captain Victoria Hayward and third baseman Kelsey Harshman. Joey Lye, who played in the league's inaugural 2020 season, returns as a trainer. And pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who closed out Canada's bronze-medal victory, is slated to work as a colour commentator for the second straight year.
The season begins on Saturday. Athletes Unlimited was introduced last year as a first-of-its-kind pro sports venture. The season is five weeks long, with new teams drafted each week. But within that team context, athletes compete as individuals, compiling points with on-field achievements ranging from a home run to a strikeout to a victory.
It's meant to highlight women's sports and continue momentum gained from the Olympic spotlight.
For Groenewegen, sharing the medal is her way of contributing to that goal.
"The medal symbolizes a lot of hard work. So I think just sharing the joy and sharing it with as many little kids as you can to help grow our sport and just grow the dream and the desire of playing at the highest level," she said.
WATCH | Groenewegen's inspiring journey to Tokyo:
Hayward, of Toronto, said the showcase is a step toward Los Angeles 2028, when softball is expected to be reintroduced to the Games.
"The exposure and the ability for a young Canadian athlete just to see professionals or see people that walked in their shoes doing and performing at the high level after the Olympics, I think that continued exposure is huge," she said.
Softball is not a core Olympic sport, meaning it's up to the host city whether it should be included alongside men's baseball as one of five organizer choices. Canadian head coach Mark Smith, who retired after Tokyo, made an impassioned plea following the team's bronze-medal win for the sport to stay in the Olympics, citing its popularity and parity.
In Athletes Unlimited, Hayward and Groenewegen will be facing plenty of American opponents whose 1-0 round-robin win in Tokyo helped leave Canada playing for bronze instead of going for gold.
Now, they'll be teammates at times. And Groenewegen was surprised to find out that joining forces with her rivals wasn't awkward at all.
"I think some of the events that we've done have been super vulnerable. And you just look past being a softball player at that point and you just truly get to know people as people," she said.
It's been a whirlwind year for Canada's softball players, who centralized in Florida in March and only returned home after the Olympics. It was another quick turnaround to Illinois for those involved in Athletes Unlimited.
"I tried to pause, but it's just been the next thing. What's the next journey for me and my life, and how am I going to make a living while continuing to play? And then now we're getting the opportunity to compete again this season," Hayward said.
Hayward, 29, will take on a coaching role at a top American college while continuing her athletic career at the same time.
Groenewegen said she's hoping to put her sport management degree to use, perhaps in some capacity with the Canadian Olympic Committee.
But it's the future of softball itself with which both players are pre-occupied. Hayward's cell-phone number is available on Athletes Unlimited's community platform, and she encourages Canadian kids to reach out and ask about her journey.
"The opportunities that AU continues to provide for us, for young people to have access and to see something real that they can become is just the best position we can ask to be in right now," she said.
As it turns out, the bronze medal may have been more of a launching point than a destination.
"But now that that's over and there's no future for the sport in the Olympics, what happens? What happens to Softball Canada and others, the grassroots efforts and all the young dreams?" Hayward said.
For now, Hayward and Groenewegen hope Athletes Unlimited can answer some of those questions.