It was after all the first medal in the sport for this country, and the first time the sport had been in the Olympics since 2008.
So getting to catch up with outfielder Victoria Hayward, a member of the medal-winning team who is now playing with Athletes Unlimited (some games are on TSN), was a definite thrill, albeit not as big a thrill as the bronze medal win was for her.
“It definitely had been a long-time coming – kind of a 13-year journey,” she said.
Obviously losing two round robin games by one run to Japan and the United States was disappointing since a win in either would have likely meant the team would play for gold not bronze.
“To compete at that level against Japan and the US and come that close,” said Hayward, leaving the comment at that point.
For the team it was a decade of preparing for an Olympic medal chance after not capturing one in 2008. The journey was made more of a rollercoaster with the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the games being postponed from 2020 until this summer.
“We had people stay around from 2008 to be part of a medal run,” said Hayward, who joined a year after the Olympics.
Hayward was the youngest person ever named to the Senior National Team, having joined in 2009 at age 16. Hayward played with the senior team at the 2009 World Cup of Softball before she made her junior debut at the 2010 WBSC Junior World Championship and Canada Cup, winning silver in both.
Since that auspicious start Hayward has been a fixture on the National team having played in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara where Canada won silver and was named to the Toronto 2015 team but was unable to compete due to an ACL and meniscus tear in her knee. She was back on the Pan Am Games team at Lima 2019, hitting .353 as Canada won the silver medal, noted www.Olympic.ca.
But the Olympic effort was the big one.
“We matured so much as a group,” said Hayward.
Part of that maturity came from playing in the now defunct National Pro Fastpitch with the Canadian Wild.
“It was huge in our preparation. We experienced so much growth,” said Hayward, adding the NPF had some of the best players in the world, and you need to play at that level to become better.
With the NPF gone and softball not in the next Olympics in Paris, the sport is in something of a state of flux.
“We’re not sure what the landscape of our sport looks like the next four years,” said Hayward, adding that is unfortunate because the sport gained fans and interest from people watching the games from Tokyo.
For the top players there is of course Athletes Unlimited, now in its second year.
“I think Athletes Unlimited is here to stay. It’s growing across all sports, (AU also operates volleyball and field lacrosse leagues),” offered Hayward.
Hayward is one of three Canadians playing with AU at present. The others are Sara Groenewegen and Kelsey Harshman.
National team member Joey Lye is involved as a facilitator with Danielle Lawrie is part of the AU broadcast team.
But beyond the top level, how the sport develops over the next several years is an unknown since Olympic sports typically have access to greater funding, and softball won’t be back until at least the Games in Los Angeles.
“It makes me sad because I know our sport deserves more,” said Hayward, adding support dollars after the 2008 Olympics helped players like herself.
“It allowed me to continue to play,” she said.
Certainly a new generation of players will make up future Canadian teams as several players are retiring after the bronze medals, seeing that game as a fitting end to their career.
Hayward said “to stay in the top three in the world, which what we earned” the young players will need to have a chance to gain experience against the best.
As for the AU experience Hayward said the play is “incredibly close” to the level of the recent Olympics, noting many of the players involved are Olympians.
Hayward noted a number on players from Team Mexico, Erika Piancastelli was on the Italian Team, and of course Americans such as stalwart pitcher Cat Osterman, are in AU.
“It’s getting to play alongside these players,” said Hayward, adding there is a bond from Tokyo “. . . the shared experience we had at the Olympics.”