KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Team USA is playing right now, as softball returns to the Olympic Games after a 13-year hiatus. And it’s a cause for celebration for two former gold-medal winners turned college softball coaches, with ties in the Kansas City area.
Christie Ambrosi was still attending Blue Valley Northwest High School the first time she tried out for the U.S. Olympic Softball Team ahead of the sport’s debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“I was so young and naïve, I just thought I was going to do it,” said Ambrosi, who now coaches softball at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
While she didn’t make the ’96 squad, for the first time, she and other young softball players could dream of the Olympics – a goal Ambrosi realized as the starting left fielder for the 2000 team at the Sydney Games.
But amid a fight over making Major League Baseball players available for the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee dropped baseball and softball after the 2008 Beijing Games.
“It was really disappointing,” Ambrosi said. “We struggle, as female athletes, to get exposure as it is. The Olympics is the pinnacle for us as female athletes… Here's another example of, we feel like we fought so long and so hard to get this in the Olympics and have it taken away, you really feel like you got set back.”
Ambrosi and other former Olympians, like University of Kansas softball coach Jennifer McFalls, who toured the world extensively to promote and grow the sport, were crushed.
“It was definitely a blow, just because so many young girls were aspiring to become Olympians,” McFalls said. “It's the pinnacle of our sport, so they had dreams. There was so much excitement about the previous years of the Olympics. When we didn't get it back in, it was like, ‘Oh no.’ We had thousands of dreams crashed.”
After softball wasn’t included in the 2012 or 2016 Olympics, it returns for the Tokyo Games, and while it won’t be played in Paris in 2024, it will be part of the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
“I think the growth of our sport over the last 20 years is phenomenal,” Ambrosi said. “The viewership and the interest in the College World Series has taken off, and I think people realize that and see that people like to watch us.”
The NCAA Softball World Series regularly draws higher ratings than the NCAA Baseball Series, but having an avenue after college remains critical.
“It's really awesome to see these kids have this opportunity and represent our country and our sport so well,” Ambrosi said. “I'm just really proud of all of them, and I wish them the best of luck.”