Growing up in a log cabin in the tiny British Columbia hamlet of Valemount, Sasha Olson was more than a little overwhelmed when she headed off to Vancouver to attend Simon Fraser University. "I wanted to come home after the first couple of weeks," Olson said yesterday during a break from training with the Canadian women's softball team. "SFU is about five times bigger than my hometown. I wasn't used to that and I missed my family."
During one of Olson's frequent calls home, her mom, Nathalie, suggested she ease her separation anxieties by signing up for an intramural sport at the university.
Having never played organized softball before, Olson signed up for what she thought was intramural ball but found herself on the varsity field, not aware that she was actually trying out for the university team. To her great shock, she eventually made the squad.
"I've always had a really strong arm," said Olson, who participated in volleyball, basketball and track and field in high school. "The first couple of years (on the university team) I'd launch it and not really know where it was going -- one out of 10 maybe hit the glove. But I've refined my accuracy. The strength and the power was there, the control was not."
Olson's raw ability and eagerness to learn put her in good stead on the diamond and now the 27-year-old outfielder is one of the veterans coach Mike Renney will be counting on to lead the squad to the medal podium at the Athens Olympics in August.
The team, which is training this weekend in Kitchener, has been consistently ranked near the top of the world but has been unable to crack the medal ranks at the past two Olympics, 2000 in Sydney and 1996 in Atlanta.
Canada was expected to challenge for a medal in Atlanta, where women's softball made its debut at the Olympics, and no less an authoritative publication than Sports Illustrated picked the Canadian women to win gold. The tournament wasn't a success and the team finished fifth. Four years later in Sydney, the women dropped to eighth place.
This time around, Canada is ranked seventh in the world, but Renney believes a medal is a definite possibility.
"I think we're right in the hunt," he said. "Third to seventh, there's a log-jam of teams in there that on any given day can certainly rise above the other teams."
The gold-medal favourite is still the U.S., followed by Japan, Australia and China. Renney said this year's team is a step up in talent from Sydney in a number of ways.
"Definitely pitching depth," he said. "We have four top-end pitchers who have had excellent results against a number of the top teams in the world. We've always had strong defence. Offensively, we've got a little more speed than Sydney and a little more pop."
One thing for sure, his team certainly has personality.
Lining up alongside Olson in the outfield for the Canadian team is Alison Bradley of Pinkerton, Ont.
Unlike Olson, Bradley has been playing ball since she was barely out of diapers. But the softball bat is not her only instrument of choice. Bradley has played the piano since she was five and the two, softball and music, have complemented each other throughout her life, even though Bradley has had to work hard to juggle both of her passions.
"I'm definitely an idealist and I honestly thought I could do both for my whole life," she said. "But people kept saying 'there's no way, you have to pick one or the other.' And it worked out wonderful that I can do both."
Bradley, 25, attended the University of Western Ontario where she studied music education. Now a supply teacher with the Bluewater District and Bruce-Grey Catholic District School boards, the outgoing fielder has put her music on the back burner to concentrate on the Olympics. Once the Games have ended, Bradley will teach full time and perhaps give concerts again.
Missing from this week's training camp is veteran shortstop Jackie Lance, who, like Bradley, began playing ball as a young girl. However, there was a time when playing at the Olympics would have seemed to have been an impossible dream for the Grande Prairie, Alta., native.
When Lance was 15, her parents split up, and that sent her into a spiral of misery. She quit school and sports, moved in with a group of guys and started taking drugs.
Fortunately, her former club coach, George Ouverey, refused to let his diamond protege throw her life away. Not only did he eventually guide Lance back into the sport, she moved in with his family.
Lance was soon back in school, later moved back in with her mom and went on to play Division I softball at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, graduating with a double major in psychology and criminology.
Today, Lance is a firefighter, one of only 21 women on the Albuquerque department. A back injury prevented her from attending this week's camp in Kitchener, but Lance is expected to be ready for Athens.
Without a doubt, sport runs in Lauren Bay's family. A member of the national team since 1999, when she competed for Canada at the world junior championship in Taiwan, Bay's uncle, Gerry Moro, was a two-time Olympian in the decathlon and is now a noted winemaker in southern California. Her brother, Jason, is a promising outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After opening the season on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury, Jason is back in action and is hitting .290 with two home runs in 20 games.
The two have had a friendly rivalry since they were kids, but support each other unconditionally.
"I was really jealous when my dad was coach of my brother's baseball team," said Bay, a left-handed pitcher. "I really wanted him to be the coach of my team. But when my brother got to a higher level, my dad came over and coached my team. It was always a good balance."