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Michelle Moultrie and USA Softball still waiting for Olympic spotlight

Team USA’s veteran leader hopes to inspire the next generation of players

Michelle Moultrie sat in disbelief.

USA Softball’s team had arrived in Seattle in early March for the next stop on its Olympic training tour. It was gearing up to play in bigger stadiums in softball hotbeds around the country. And earlier that day, Moultrie and her teammates had received their Olympic schedule, which featured preliminary round games in locations such as Fukushima and Yokohama, Japan, and against teams such as Italy, Canada and host Japan.

They were one step closer to realizing their Olympic dream.

But that evening, after a full day of practice, players were called in for a team meeting. There would be no game the following day. The tour had been postponed due to concerns over the coronavirus. The players were being sent home.

“The emotional part was just the initial realization that life was going to be a lot different right away,” Moultrie said.

Moultrie, 29, was also scared at the possibility of the Olympics being canceled altogether.

Last year, softball was not included on the short list of sports by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the Paris Games in 2024. Tokyo was likely Moultrie’s final shot to make an Olympic team.

When Moultrie was 10 years old, she remembers turning on the 2000 Games and being inspired by Natasha Watley, the first African American woman to play on the USA Olympic team.

“I remember seeing Natasha Watley be such a pivotal player on that team,” Moultrie said. “I was really inspired by that.”

Moultrie joined Team USA in 2011 as one of the top players in college softball, a star center fielder for the University of Florida who would be named co-Most Outstanding Player of the 2011 Women’s College World Series. But she never thought she’d get the opportunity to play in the Olympics.

At the time, Team USA was three years removed from its last Olympic run, a disappointing 2008 silver medal-winning effort in Beijing. In 2005, baseball and softball had been dropped from the Olympic ledger by the IOC for the 2012 Games in London. In 2009, softball was again left off the Olympic slate for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Moultrie had arrived on the Team USA roster at a time when the coveted “Olympic Dream” was deemed nonexistent.

Still, Moultrie transitioned from a wide-eyed collegiate player to a team leader, one of the longest-tenured members in the program. Nine years on USA Softball has yielded two gold and two silver Pan American Games medals, as well as two gold and silver World Championship medals. Team USA currently stands as the No. 1-ranked team in the world.

Michelle Moultrie of the United States (right) celebrates with her teammates after a score against Canada during the second inning of the women’s grand final at the softball field of Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo on Day 15 of the Lima 2019 Pan American Games on Aug. 10, 2019, in Lima, Peru.

Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images

“She really has been the glue that has kept this whole thing running,” said USA Softball infielder Valerie Arioto, who joined the team with Moultrie in 2011. “Going almost 10 years with the national team and not being in the Olympics was made easier because of people like her. She stayed around, she stayed loyal, she kept the program at an excellent standard.”

All because of her passion for the sport.

Despite winning as much as Moultrie has on an international level, representing the United States on the diamond also carries a financial burden. Opportunities for American athletes to play softball after graduating from college remain limited, and those that do exist don’t pay close to a livable wage. The average player in the National Pro Fastpitch league makes low- to mid-four figures for a three-month season.

“Ever since I graduated from college in 2012, it’s been, you can play pro softball or coach college softball, but it’s really going to be for the love of the game,” Moultrie said.

Moultrie said that between 2011 and 2016, USA Softball paid its players by per diem. Even winning an international tournament like the World Championships, which Team USA did in both 2016 and 2018, rewarded players with only about $2,000.

Since joining Team USA, Moultrie has held other jobs to support herself as a pro, ranging from an accounting intern to a receptionist to a collegiate softball coach.

“For the first couple of years we had a lot of turnover because a lot of people couldn’t afford to live that life,” Moultrie said. “It was a hard decision to make for a woman just coming out of college, wanting to have a professional opportunity but not really having the finances. Everybody can’t do it.”

For Moultrie, these past few months spent with USA Softball marked the first time she’s actually felt like a professional athlete. She saw a slight uptick in pay due to increased stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) — she was making $27,000 between USA Softball and the USOC — had substantial training opportunities alongside her teammates and was traveling the country. Having that breakthrough suddenly disrupted was tough for Moultrie and her teammates to grapple.

“We train a lot, we just don’t have the financial ability to even train together for a long time,” said Moultrie, who added that in a normal year, the team can train together maybe two to three months of the year. “It just seemed more real.”

Less than two weeks after being sent home, members of Team USA learned that the IOC would be postponing the Summer Games. On March 31, the games had been officially rescheduled for July 2021.

With the Olympics pushed back, Moultrie said she’ll likely have to find work, but hopes to do so within the softball community through camps, lessons and coaching. She added that USA Softball will be paying Team USA through the month and potentially for additional months.

There are many unanswered questions that will ultimately determine how the path to Tokyo will be decided for Team USA. For the time being, Moultrie said, she doesn’t mind the rest the unintended break has presented. The team still remains in touch, meeting every Tuesday via video chat for what they’ve labeled “Tuesday Ted Talks.”

“As soon as we can, we’ll probably start to get together again,” Moultrie said. “It’s really kind of up in the air.”

When Moultrie finally takes the field in Tokyo in 2021, it will mark a decade of representing Team USA. And, like Watley, Moultrie hopes her presence on Team USA can inspire the next generation of the game.

“Hopefully, I could do that for other people,” she said.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.