Softball’s history in the Olympics and its legacy in inspiring others
UCLA softball’s Lisa Fernandez, now an associate head softball coach (left) and previously a utility from 1990-1993 (right), stands in the stadium in her two roles. (From left to right: Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor and Courtesy from UCLA Athletics)
Jan. 18, 2024 12:59 a.m.
Softball’s introduction into the 1996 Olympic Games proved to be a massive moment for the sport.
“We had reached that pinnacle of athletics, and that’s being an Olympic sport, and getting onto the mainstream where we’re in the talks with soccer and women’s basketball,” said UCLA associate head coach Lisa Fernandez. “What an impact softball made.”
Fernandez was a member of the first Team USA for softball in Olympic history and proceeded to win gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
For 25 years, Fernandez has been a member of the coaching staff at UCLA, working with the team and guiding players through the collegiate level of the sport.
Despite ending her playing career in 2008, Fernandez was one of the last to play at the Olympic level. After a run of four appearances in the games, the International Olympic Committee voted by secret ballot to drop softball from the 2012 Olympic Games, seemingly ending the sport’s moment of glory.
The IOC left it up to a committee of 105 voters to determine whether softball would return in 2012, and with one member abstaining and the voters split equally, no majority was reached.
It wasn’t until the 2020 Summer Olympics that the sport was added back on the list, by special request of host nation Japan, who won gold, while the United States took home silver.
After a brief hiatus at Paris 2024, the 2028 Los Angeles Games will once again include the sport of softball, and potentially some Bruins.
Sophomore infielder Jordan Woolery and utility Megan Grant competed alongside each other for Team USA in the 2023 Japan All-Star Series during the summer. As teammates on both the UCLA and USA squads, the newly debuted international players are entering their sophomore season with new experiences under their belts.
“Being able to represent the country outside of USA versus playing here for Team USA is really cool, especially because we got to experience different things and meet so many different people there,” Woolery said.
Both Bruins are coming off a season of Pac-12 accolades – Woolery as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Grant as an All-Pac-12 First Team selection.
Grant said being a member of the national team is synonymous with playing at the highest level.
“We work towards wanting to be an Olympian and to chase the gold medal,” Grant said. “It’s a special feeling in your heart to be able to say, ‘Man, wearing those three letters,’ and it’s a completely different level and just amazing.”
At the collegiate level, softball’s fan interest has increased over the years.
Oklahoma broke the college softball attendance record when 8,930 fans filled its home stadium in April.
As the season reached its apex, the Women’s College World Series experienced a similar new height. Game 2 of the final series averaged 1.9 million viewers on ESPN and generated more than 90 million impressions on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“These past years with the World Series, it’s been on ABC and more major networks, so even with the Olympics, it’s probably going to be on every sports channel you could possibly imagine,” Woolery said. “So even having the exposure and being able to see women play softball, powerful women play softball, it just makes you want to play softball.”
For the first time since the beginning of softball in the Olympics, the sport will be played in the same time zone as Americans, making for a simpler viewing experience domestically.
Grant said more televised games will be good for the sport.
“More people are going to be able to see it and want to watch it and then see their favorite players playing and then be like, ‘I want to be like them someday,'” Grant said. “Growing up, being able to watch college softball impacted me a lot, but I feel like even now it’s grown so much more from even younger.”
With personal experience in the games, Fernandez said she recognizes the importance of exposing younger generations to softball on a worldwide stage.
“Part of my legacy is when I started this route and was handed the torch, it was to try to put the sport in a better place than when I played,” Fernandez said. “It’s life-changing, but it’s changing not only the lives of those athletes, but the lives of young girls, and truly young boys, to be able to respect and to be able to see what female athletes can do and what they can achieve.”