After almost 13 years softball will make its return to the Olympic stage and Australia are hoping to bring home gold
The return of Olympic Softball has been a long one.
It was on 21 August 2008 at the Beijing Olympic Games that the last softball match at Olympic level was played. However, next summer the sport will finally return with players and fans alike eagerly awaiting.
One of those players is Australian Stacey Porter, who is the most capped softball player in the world with 441 games under her belt.
Captain of the Australian side, also know as the Aussie Spirit, she is just one of two players in the national team with Olympic experience - Justine Smethurst being the other.
In fact, Porter, who is considered to be one of the best batters in the world, has played at two Olympics Games; Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.
However, as softball returns to the biggest sporting stage, it means more than just being able to be an Olympian again.
"It's important because being recognised as an Olympic sport means more funding and this creates programmes and opportunities for the growth and development of our sport," Porter told Tokyo 2020.
"Plus it gives our younger generation a real dream to aim for."
Porter was just 22-years-old when she walked out unto the diamond at the Athens 2004 Games.
It was a dream come true to make the team as someone who had watched all the previous Olympics softball had been part of.
"Competing at an Olympics is like no other experience, it's a worldwide event with so much hype around it," she remembered.
"You really have to find a balance of not getting caught up in all that hype, performing on the biggest stage and staying focussed on your job."
Since the introduction of softball at Atlanta 1996, Australia had won two bronze medals including one on home soil at Sydney 2000. But in Athens, they ended up with something better.
After defeating Japan 3-0 in the bronze medal match, Australia faced the United States, who were already back-to-back Olympic champions, for the coveted gold medal.
While Australia didn't come away with the gold, Porter hit a double which led teammate Sandra Allen to score. Why was this significant? Well, it was the only time at Athens 2004 an opposing hitter had scored a run off an American pitcher.
For Porter, her Olympic silver medal is one of her favourite memories.
2004 Getty Images
However, at Beijing 2008 her experience was very different as the now 38-year-old explained to Tokyo 2020.
"In 2004, I found it easy to go out and perform, I was young, free and didn’t have high expectations to make an impact. I just didn’t allow myself to get caught up in performance."
"[But] 2008 was a very different... I was older and more impactful within the team. I think I got in my head a lot and I didn’t perform the way I wanted to. It was still one of the best experiences I’ve had playing softball, it was just a lot harder than Athens."
Australia came away with a bronze at Beijing 2008, which was their fourth consecutive Olympic medal. However, this was also the last time softball would be part of the Olympic programme, with London 2012 axing it from it's programme.
While it was definitely a heartbreaking moment learning that softball would no longer be on the Olympics, Porter's initial thoughts were with all the "young girls back in Australia who might miss out" on a chance to compete at the Olympics.
"I also felt for softball in general, the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of sport and I knew the development of our game would be impacted," she added.
2008 Getty Images
Despite there being no Olympic Games, Porter hasn't found it hard to keep herself motivated.
"I play with ﬁre in my belly, so any chance I got to step onto a diamond was going to keep me motivated," she said. "I will always be grateful for this amazing opportunity for me to continue my career."
Every two years the Women's Softball World Championships are hosted, which has allowed teams from across the world to play each other in a high level international competition. Australia has never failed to make a playoff - winning two bronze medals since 2010 - with the most recent edition in 2018 seeing them finish fourth.
"This created so many opportunities for us to continue to play the game."
The 38-year-old has recently returned to Japan to play in the Japan Women's Softball League where her team Galaxy Stars are currently eighth.
Ready to open the Olympic Games
There is no better way for softball to make its return to the Olympic stage than to be the first event to kick off the Games on 21 August 2021.
And Porter believes it doesn't get much better than Australia taking on the reigning Olympic champions and hosts Japan.
"I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the Games!"
Australia booked its ticket to Tokyo 2020, their fifth Olympics appearance, with a 9-3 win over the People's Republic of China during the WBSC Softball Asia/Oceania Qualifiers.
Despite currently being ranked eighth in the world, they are ready to take on the likes of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Italy - who have also qualified.
"We’re going into this Olympics prepared for every team and I think to get the host nation and reigning Olympic champions straight off the bat will be a great opportunity for us," the first Indigenous Australian softball player said.
"It's a quick and punchy tournament, I’m happy to face Japan day one."
Softball, along with its counterpart baseball, are widely popular in Japan, so stands could be filled with vocal supporters cheering. However, for Porter there will be one person missing in the crowd.
Unfortunately, a few years ago she lost her father, a person who has had a major impact on who she is today and her biggest supporter.
And while he won't be in the stands in Japan, Porter believes he will still be there.
"My dad was always one of my biggest supporters. He was a very proud man who had a beautiful soft side that I adored," she said.
"He has never missed an Olympic Games and I think it will be a little different without him in the stands in Tokyo but, I have no doubt he’s with me every step of the way. That's just the kind of man he was."
2018 Getty Images
Looking to continue Australia's success
Australia has a proud record in Olympic Softball with three bronze medals and a silver making them the only nation besides the United States to have medalled at every edition of the Games softball has been included.
"We’ve always had dedicated athletes who were committed to winning and willing to make sacrifices for the team," Porter said on Australia's success before adding that the team's focus "does not change for this upcoming Olympics".
However, like many athletes, the gold medal is the ultimate goal.
While the Aussie Spirit have only experienced the gold medal match once, Porter has faith that the team is on track to bring home the nations first gold in the sport.
"Sometimes it's hard to do something you have never done, but I think with this group of girls and the work we have been doing at home in the off season, both on and off the diamond, we are right on track to winning gold," she said.
"It starts with belief and when a group of people wholeheartedly believe the same, its a very powerful thing.
"This group has that belief."
With softball not shortlisted for Paris 2024 and no guarantees it will be included at Los Angeles 2024, the Tokyo 2020 Games could be a once in a lifetime experience.
And maybe the one chance to capture an Olympic medal.