05/03/2024

The Aussie Spirit celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Photo: Softball Australia/WBSC)

The Aussie Spirit becomes the first Australian Olympic team to head to Japan for Tokyo 2020 with plenty of preparation to be done yet.

Australia’s national softball team, the Aussie Spirit, will become the country’s first Olympic squad to take residency in Japan when they leave for Tokyo today.

The 2020 Olympic Games will be the fifth time softball will be making an appearance and the first time since the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

Australia qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games back in September 2019, dominating with a perfect 5-0 record at the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Asian/Oceania Olympic Qualifier in Shanghai, China.

The Spirit have won a medal at each of the previous Olympic Games that softball has been a part of; their best placing a silver medal at Athens in 2004.

While the softball program at the upcoming Olympic Games won’t begin until July 21 – two days before the Opening Ceremony and 25 years to the day of softball’s Olympic debut at Atlanta in 1996 -, the Aussie Spirit are making the trip early to better prepare them for a medal.

Softball Australia CEO David Pryles spoke to The Inner Sanctum about the squad’s plans when they touch down in Japan and how having an extra six weeks together will improve their chances of a podium placing.

“We can’t get the level of competition in Australia that’s going to prepare us for a medal and the girls haven’t really played together effectively since February 2020 at the Australia Pacific Cup in Sydney,” Pryles said.

“We knew that we needed to go over and play as many games as possible, hence why we’re leaving today. We’re going to spend a good six weeks prior to the first game in a training camp in Ota City, then Tokyo.”

During the next month and a half, the Aussie Spirit will be training together and playing games against professional teams, including the Japanese national team. It’s a move which Pryles believes will allow for an understanding of how the team should perform when it comes to the real event.

“[Japan] has a really strong professional league so we are playing some of the professional teams. We’ve also got a couple of games against the Japanese national team as well which will be good practice.”

Currently, Stacey Porter, the captain of the Aussie Spirit, and the team’s number one pitcher Kaia Parnaby play in the Japanese Softball League. Porter and Parnaby have played in the league for 10 years, leading each to unearth some local knowledge on the competition and its players towards the Australian group.

Pryles believes softball’s high performance program has to be heralded for their approach to getting the team ready to compete in Tokyo. Logistical things like COVID-19 vaccinations, visas, and insurance as well as a high degree of training opportunities and learning from former gold medallists have all contributed to the team being in a good place.

“It’s been really tough but we’ve had some strong support, really good support actually from the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and even the Australian embassy in Tokyo as well,” Pryles said.

“We set on this path really when we set the new high performance team together in October 2018 so really, less than 12 months away from trying to qualify and they’ve done everything possible and it’s been fantastic.”

“A big thanks to the people of Japan as well. They’ve opened their country up to us and we’re doing everything possible and we’ve ticked every box from a governance perspective.”

In the past couple of months, back home, the Australian squad has taken part in the Gold Medal Ready Program. The program, run by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), ‘aims to enhance the mental performance of Australian athletes so they can perform at their best and be on the podium at the Games’.

It included a phone hook-up between the Spirit’s three Indigenous members with Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, organised by Athlete Health and Wellbeing Manager Dee Anderson.

“We’ve had two training camps, one at the AIS, one in Sydney but learning from those gold medallists, just amazing,” Pryles said.

“The level of support, the level of understanding they have for our athletes and what our athletes have been able to understand from them… we’re really thankful to the AIS for that, they’ve been fantastic.”

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The Aussie Spirit will be taking 23 players with them to Japan, which will be reduced to 15 ahead of the Games, which will make up the Australian roster for their Olympic Games campaign.

“We’ve got to pick the 15 who are going to be making up the Olympic squad [on] June 30 which means there’s going to be eight unlucky athletes who we have to send home straight away,” Pryles confirmed.

Of the 23 players looking for a place at Tokyo 2020, only two have Olympic experience – Porter (2004 and 2008) and Justine Smethurst (2008) – while there are two new faces, South Australia’s Georgia Hood and Victorian Bree Trim.

Pryles confirmed that every player who took the diamond in Shanghai to get the team to Tokyo 2020 is in the current squad, bar Carmelle Sorensen who retired last year. Pryles stated most of the team has been playing together for a decade so the unity still remains heading into the next two months.

“Bringing the new members in, I think what that’s done is add another level of excitement and buoyancy about the group,” Pryles said.

“We’ve got two pitchers who were in Shangahi but are still very young so Tarni Stepto, and Gabbie Plain who’s just finished in the NCAA Division 1 for Washington. There’s a level of excitement but it’s also freshened up the group which has been fantastic.”

The Aussie Spirit are all smiles as they celebrate qualifying for Tokyo 2020. (Photo: Softball Australia)

Pryles has conceded it will be a different look and feel at the Olympic Games this time around. Despite this, he is confident the Spirit have got the tools to compete well in the six-team softball competition that includes Japan, the United States, Italy, Mexico and Canada.

“Certainly it will be a different Olympic Games, that’s for sure,” Pryles said.

“There won’t be any overseas visitors so family and friends and supporters won’t be able to be there. It’s literally, go to the ballpark, do your job, come back home. That’s how it will be completely different.

“But I think it probably harnesses them a little bit more. Maybe it gives us a little bit of an edge, maybe certainly over the Japanese team, you might have some outward pressure.”

Pryles is confident the sport itself is heading in the right direction and points to a change in organisational structure and a focus on participation as factors to grow the sport. He also praised the amount of support softball has received from top government agencies as a contributor to growing the game.

“Everything we’re doing is linking into participation. We’re trying to arrest the decline which has been in decline for two decades year on year,” Pryles said.

“I just think the level of support we’ve received has been fantastic. I can’t thank Sport Australia, the AIS and the AOC enough, they’ve been absolutely magnificent.

“It’s been testing times for everyone in high performance sport since COVID but we wouldn’t be able to get this far without their support so we’re very much indebted to them. We have a strong relationship where we look forward to continuing that on.”

In sending a warning message to the rest of the countries that will compete for glory in softball at the Olympics, Pryles says this crop of softballers are hungry for success and hopeful of returning to Australia with its first softball gold medal.

“The girls are certainly hungry, [it’s] their lifelong dream. It was just delayed 12 months. I think it’s solidified them more than anything. They’re hungrier, more resilient and they want to achieve.

“For us, we’re just going over there as a group together to stay together, play together and win together. So now we just have to work hard and bring home a medal.”

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