I knew as a young child that God had given me the gift of athletic ability. Whether I was throwing a ball, racing around on my bike, or climbing a tree, I felt completely alive, filled with a spirit that was larger than myself.
In school, girls weren’t allowed to try out for the teams, but I played pickup games of baseball, basketball, and kickball after school. Sports just came naturally to me, and I felt the Lord’s pleasure when I hit a homerun or sunk a free throw.
My two brothers played Little League. The fact that girls weren’t allowed to play in the league was a terrible disappointment to me. But it didn’t stop me from playing.
Getting Noticed by Coaches
One day, I was helping my brother warm up just outside the fence of the Little League playing field. A coach came running over and said, “Wow, you’ve got a great arm! How would you like to play on my team?”
Then, in practically the same breath, the coach added, “We’re going to have to cut your hair really short and give you a boy’s name. How about Bob?”
That didn’t sit right with me. “Sir, thank you, but no thank you.”
My brother walked over to the dugout and joined his team. My friend Cinda Brown and I started playing catch on the edge of a nearby field. Then another coach ran over and said, “That is some arm you’ve got. Do you have a minute to talk to the head coach?”
To quote the great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, it felt like “déjà vu all over again.” But I thought what the heck, and said, “Sure.”
What is Fastpitch Softball?
As we approached the diamond, I realized that all the players were female. Then a woman came out of the third-base dugout and introduced herself as the head coach. I was shocked.
“Have you ever played fastpitch softball?” she asked.
“No, what is it?”
“It’s just like baseball but the ball’s a little bigger. Get on third base and take a few ground balls.”
I started fielding some balls. I instantly felt like I belonged. After about five minutes, the coach came over and said, “How would you like to play on my team?”
So I became a Union Park Jet. The team’s colors (in a nice bit of foreshadowing) were red, white, and blue.
I injured myself pretty badly jumping from a tree while playing for the Union Park Jets and had to miss nationals. While the team was gone, I hobbled my way to an instructional tryout being held by the Orlando Rebels, a Women’s Major League Fastpitch Softball team. Under legendary coach Marjorie Ricker, the Rebels had amassed more wins than any team in the history of the league. They were the equivalent of the Yankees, the Red Sox, or the Dodgers.
I made the instructionals, and I learned from legends like Dotty Davidson and Pat Walker, the Babe Ruths and Mickey Mantles of women’s fast-pitch softball. I was a sponge, soaking up the playing techniques, spirit of teamwork, and down-to-earth generosity of these elite athletes.
At the end of the instructional period, I became a Batgirl. At the end of the season, I joined the team as the youngest girl ever to play Women’s Major League Fastpitch Softball.
Can Girls Do That?
I played for the Rockets all through high school. When a friend told me she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, I remember thinking, “Can girls be doctors?”
There was a lot of negativity, and I heard things like: “Well, Dot, you’re way too short to play basketball in college” and “Dot, girls from small towns in Florida don’t get to be doctors, so you might as well forget about it” and “There’s no way you’re going to play in the Olympics, that’s just a stupid fantasy.”
I had friends who quit playing sports because boys wouldn’t ask them out on dates. The attitude among a lot of boys was that if a girl played sports she wanted to be a boy.
Woman Advance in Sports
I decided I wasn’t going to let the negativity affect me. In addition, I drew strength from the changes that were afoot in the sports world.
In 1973, tennis great Billie Jean King was challenged to play against Bobby Riggs. She beat Riggs in straight sets. Then tennis player Chris Everett came on the scene. I idolized her.
About three weeks before my high-school graduation, I was picked to try out for the first ever women’s softball team in the Pan American Games. The tryouts lasted six days and the final team selection was typed up and posted on a bulletin board. My name was on it.
Achieving a Lifelong Dream
In 1993 the International Olympics Committee announced that women’s softball would become an Olympic sport, starting with the 1996 Games.
The 1996 Games were in Atlanta, and the whole experience was a blur of adrenaline, exhilaration, and camaraderie. We faced China in the gold-medal game and won 3-1. During the Games, I hit the first home run ever by a woman in Olympics softball, and I drove in the winning run in the final game.
Standing on the podium with my teammates, I felt the presence of the Lord. I remembered back to when girls weren’t allowed to play were denied opportunities that boys took for granted. I’d been there for the first women’s softball NCAA Championship and Pan American Games, and now the first Olympics.
My childhood dream of winning an Olympic medal had come true. Then the American flag was raised, the national anthem was played – and I started bawling my eyes out.
Yes, I was feeling pride and happiness, but the strongest emotion was humility. I was living a dream that thousands of girls never had a chance to pursue. And now my teammates and I were paving the way for the girls who were coming up behind us.
As the medal ceremony ended and I walked off the field, a boy and a girl standing side by side in the stands were stretching their arms out to me. I grasped their hands and we connected – and I thought how beautiful it was that we were sharing in the recognition that God’s gifts are bestowed on all of us, no matter what our gender.