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Sports This Week: From Saskatoon to Tokyo with softball

Gilbert part of bronze medal winning Canadian team

So the Summer Olympics in Tokyo have come and gone. 

For yours truly it was a busy time of wading through the extensive coverage of Canadian athletes to find those sports that hold my interest. 

Easily one of my top two sports to watch was softball. I’ve loved the game since I played a few decades back, and actually followed the Canadian women’s team online as it readied for its shot at making the Games playing in the National Pro Fastpitch League which sadly just recently announced it was folding. 

The Canadian team did of course qualify for the six-team Olympics as softball returned to the Games for the first time since 2008. 

The Canadians were fun to watch, dropping only two games in round robin play, to Japan and the United States, both by scores of 1-0. Those two teams would eventually meet for the gold medal, Japan winning on home soil 2-0 for their second straight Olympic title. 

Canada played for bronze, topping Mexico 3-2. It was Canada’s first medal in the sport, and part of this country’s most successful non-boycotted Summer Olympics. 

Among the players was Jennifer Gilbert who was born in Saskatoon, although she grew up in Texas learning to play softball there, but always dreaming of being an Olympian one day for the country of her birth. 

Gilbert said the Canadian road to Tokyo “was a rollercoaster” given the cancellation of 2020, and the uncertainty of whether they would be held this year. 

So it was in a way a relief just to be in Japan. 

“Once we were all settled we could take a deep breath – We’re finally here,” she said in a recent telephone chat. 

Of course finally being in Tokyo was a bit intimidating too. 

“It was a little bit of nerves going in,” said Gilbert, adding once they began play she realized “I’ve done this a thousand times before.” 

And the result was of course gratifying. 

“We were the first team to medal for Canada in softball,” noted Gilbert. 

But, they had come so close to the gold game, did that leave regrets. 

“I wouldn’t say there was regret,” said Gilbert, although she added “everybody goes in wanting to win a gold medal.” 

However, even in coming up a run, or two short, Gilbert said the team “did everything we could.” 

Gilbert said the 1-0 loss to the US does stick with her though. 

“It was by far the toughest game we ever played ... Every play was an important one. Every at-bat was an important one,” she said. 

The whole Olympics was a bit unusual for softball participants having not been on the schedule for years, and already announced that the sport will not be part of the next Summer Olympics in Paris. 

Gilbert said they were aware this would likely be the last chance for some, and only chance for others, to win a medal, but they had no control over that situation. 

“You had to focus on what you can control,” she said. 

But the yoyo relationship of softball and the Olympics is something Gilbert said is ultimately a detriment to the sport. 

“It’s definitely unfortunate. It hampers our sport from growing at the international level,” she said. 

It hurts too in terms of a professional league in North America being successful, said Gilbert, adding that with the Canadian team playing as the ‘Canadian Wild’ in the NPF in 2019 she had the opportunity to see “how much improvement we had made,” playing in a high level pro atmosphere. 

As for Gilbert’s own future, it appears to be away from the playing field, which will be a major change since she has been part of the national team program for more than a decade, starting with the Women’s U-16 National Team in 2009. In 2010 and 2011 she competed as part of the Junior Women’s National Team and helped lead Team Canada to a fifth-place showing at the 2011 WBSC Junior Women’s World Championship in Cape Town, South Africa.  

“In 2012 Gilbert made the jump to the senior team and competed in her first of three WBSC World Championships in Whitehorse, Yukon. She was also part of Team Canada at the Worlds in 2014 and 2018, taking home bronze in 2018,” details 

“With a .429 batting average and two homeruns, Gilbert was one of Canada’s top hitters at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games where the team won silver. A few weeks later, she recorded nine RBIs at the WBSC Americas Olympic Qualifier in Surrey, B.C. as the team booked its ticket to Tokyo 2020.” 

And now she says she’ll end on an Olympic medal high note.

“I’m ready for the next chapter, to see what non-softball play will bring me,” she said. 

While the bronze medal win was a career highlight, Gilbert said she does wish fans had been allowed at games, in particular her mother who has long been a key supporter and helped get her to be an Olympian. 

“Her and Dad not being in the stands watching my final game was heartbreaking,” she said, “not being there to see me complete my career.”