Gold medal in Beijing inspires the Japanese women's softball team to give their all - and aim for another gold - at their home Games in Tokyo next year.
On 21 August 2008, Japan’s women’s softball team finally won the Olympic gold medal it so desperately sought.
At the Beijing 2008 Games, it came as no surprise when both Japan and the USA advanced to the Olympic softball final. It was in the bottom of the final seventh inning, with two outs and Japan leading 3-1, when Japan’s ace pitcher UENO Yukiko made her powerful 413th pitch.
The batted ball rolled towards third base, where HIROSE Megu fielded and threw to first basewoman SATO Rie. Sato stretched out her hand and managed to catch it, sealing a win for Japan. It was the moment of victory, ending the ambition of the USA to claim its fourth consecutive Olympic victory.
The Japanese players rushed to the pitcher’s mound to celebrate, where at the centre was Ueno, proudly raising her index finger high into the air as a gesture of victory.
It was the moment that the team had envisioned for many years - ever since softball was added to the Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta, Japan had been expected to win gold in the event. However, they had ended with a disappointing fourth place in Atlanta 1996, silver at Sydney 2000 and bronze at Athens 2004.
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Tough road to victory
The journey to the gold medal was not an easy one.
In the preliminary round, Japan suffered a 0‒7 defeat against a formidable rival, Team USA, and were unable to win even a single run. Although Japan secured a spot at the medal round (semi-finals) by finishing second in the preliminary round, this crushing defeat dealt a major blow to the team’s confidence.
In the semi-final against the USA on 20 August, Ueno, who was recognised as the world’s fastest pitcher, started the game for Japan. It was the beginning of the legendary “413 pitches of Ueno.”
The game proceeded with scoreless innings revealing a pitcher’s duel, and went into extra innings for a tiebreaker. In the ninth, with the USA leading 1-0, Crystl Bustos, the USA’s renowned slugger, appeared at the plate. She made a powerful swing and mercilessly sent Ueno’s fastball into the stands. The three-run home run by Bustos widened the gap and forced Japan to compete in the bronze medal match.
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The bronze medal match took place on the same day.
Losing the game would mean Japan ending in third place. Their opponent was Australia, the very team against whom Japan lost in the bronze medal match at the Athens 2004 Games. After a mere five-hour break, the team ace Ueno was back on the mound again to start the game, after already having thrown 147 pitches in the previous game.
Japan reached the final seventh leading 2-1 with only one more out to go. However, Kerry Wyborn hit a solo game-tying home run, forcing Japan to play extra innings for two games in a row.
Australia broke the tie in the eleventh but Japan fought back to even the score, and in the twelfth, NISHIYAMA Rei ended the game in victory with a walk-off hit.
Final game in the hands of the ace player
The following day, 21 August, Ueno again started for Japan.
The power pitcher had already made 318 pitches in 21 innings over two games during the previous day's action, but there was no other option, neither in the mind of the then head coach, SAITO Haruka, nor in Ueno’s. The USA also showed up armed with two of their best pitchers. Their plan was to start the game with Cat Osterman and close it with Monica Abbott.
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KARINO Ayumi opened the score in the third inning with an RBI single. In the top of the following fourth, team captain YAMADA Eri finally took down Osterman, a feat she was unable to achieve even once at the Athens 2004 Games, delivering a solo homerun and doubling the advantage to 2-0. In the bottom of the same inning, Bustos came to bat. Ueno challenged her with her fastball. However, it was again sent to the stands, which allowed the USA to cut the lead to 2-1.
Bustos reappeared at the plate in the bottom of the sixth. Ueno could not afford the same mistake again. Ueno opted to intentionally walk Bustos. From there, despite having walked the bases loaded, she worked her way out and got the following batters down with her secret weapon – the screwball, which she had acquired to beat the Americans.
Japan added a precious insurance run to widen the gap in the top of the seventh off Abbott, who had appeared as a relief from the previous inning. Although Ueno had allowed a runner on a base with no out in the bottom of the same inning, she concentrated on pitching to contact, and with help from Hirose’s solid defence, shut out the remaining batters and sealed the win.
At the moment of victory, the faces of the players were wreathed in smiles. In the middle of the rejoicing athletes was Ueno, raising her finger high in the air. She had thrown an incredible 413 pitches despite having painful blisters on the middle finger of her pitching hand.
All the sacrifices were for this moment.
Road to Tokyo 2020 Games where softball is back
Softball will return to the Olympic stage at Tokyo 2020 after having missed the previous two Games.
The Japanese national team will hold a training camp in November, after the national league - scheduled to resume in September - ends the season.
“The postponement of the Games forced us to change our plans. We will nevertheless work hard to make sure we are on the right track to secure gold,” said UTSUGI Reika, the head coach.
One issue that Utsugi believes Japan must work on ahead of Tokyo 2020 is the development of a younger generation of pitchers - the likes of 20-year-old right-handed pitcher KATSUMATA Misaki and 19-year-old left-handed pitcher GOTO Miu - as they are expected to step into the shoes of Ueno and FUJITA Yamato.
"The one year postponement gives more time for young athletes to grow in all aspects, including technical ones. So, I would like to urge young athletes to work hard and make the most of their time.
"I would like to get them to compete with overseas teams, and I also need to consider a game plan to make the best use of them," says Utsugi.
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Ueno makes efforts 365 days to win gold
"Thank you for your encouragement. I will do my best to win a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games. I ask for your continued support," Ueno told fans at the Yokohama Stadium after winning the Japan Softball League 2019 title.
Ueno added, "the joy of victory is a brief moment in time, but it is for that brief moment that I work hard, 365 days a year.” Ueno is already making her way forward in a quest for another victory at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The USA is also eyeing the gold medal. Although they won consecutive titles at the World Softball Championships and defeated Japan at the 2019 Japan Cup before clinching the title, an Olympic gold medal is another story completely.
Osterman, who had previously retired, made a comeback in 2019 after a four-year absence. Both the American ace pitcher and Ueno will be 38 by the time the Tokyo 2020 Games arrive, and Osterman is determined to erase the painful memory of defeat to Japan in Beijing and finish her career with a gold.
“The Tokyo 2020 Games will be a fantastic occasion. I am very excited and really looking forward to it,” Osterman told Tokyo 2020.
“It's obviously great for sports, first, to be back in the Tokyo Olympic Games, knowing the sport is so popular here in Japan."
"I am really excited to have a chance to compete in the Olympics again, it's obviously at the top stage of sports."
Pledge to deliver outstanding result for the future of softball
Softball will disappear from the Olympic programme at Paris 2024.
“The gold medal is the only thing we are aiming at. If we are able to achieve good results, people in Japan will become more interested in softball. Then, the sport may restore its place in the Olympic programme," says 36-year-old team captain YAMADA Eri.
"I would like to see many children who are playing softball with dreams and ambitions get a chance to experience the Olympic stage," she added.
Japan’s gold medal in softball is a symbol of hope for children and athletes who continue to dream that softball will eventually be reinstated for future Games.
In the meantime, Japan are hoping to sign-off by claiming a historic victory in Tokyo.
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