’Olympic Mon’ – A True Sporting Giant

’Olympic Mon’ – A True Sporting Giant

Usain Bolt, the Brazil soccer team of 1970, Tiger Woods, Martina Navratilova, Jackie Robinson, Bob Beamon, Muhammad Ali. All these athletes were great, but they were so much more than that: they were transformational sports people. It requires skill, dedication, and sustained peak fitness to reach the top in sport, and relatively few athletes ever achieve that level.

Brian Salmon for The World Games

Being a transformational athlete is much rarer. It requires character and boundless self-belief, and only a handful of athletes can reach that stratospheric level. A transformational athlete is one who enables their sport to be regarded in a totally different light, either through the way they have innovated in their career, or through the way it opens new opportunities to the athletes following in their footsteps. American Softball player Monica ABBOTT, who recently announced her retirement, meets the criteria to be regarded as a transformational athlete on both counts.

Unique style of pitching

The career statistics are impressive in themselves, but fail to do justice to the influence Abbott has had on the sport. Two Olympic Softball finals, four World Championships including the thrilling conclusion to the Birmingham 2022 edition of The World Games, the first perfect game ever pitched at the Olympics, and multiple records in college and in professional leagues in America and Japan. However it is not just her competitiveness and game-changing abilities that made her such an outstanding athlete. She has developed a unique style of pitching, which enables her to pitch the ball incredibly fast; she holds the Guinness World Record for the quickest Softball pitch. Her talent made her the first player to be offered a million dollar contract by a professional American Softball team, and it has enabled her to set up her own charitable foundation offering educational scholarships to promising female athletes.

Abbott is counted by many as the best Softball pitcher in history, and this is due to her innovative pitching delivery. One impossibly long stride, a whirring motion of the arms, and then the ball emerges unexpectedly, at high speed. The result is like being on the receiving end of a hyperactive vending machine! During her high-school years, she had to work out how to use her natural talents to her best advantage. She explained, “I think it actually made me have to figure out how to be more limber and flexible at a younger age. Because I was always growing so fast, there were times I felt like I was clumsy… but once I finally ‘grew into my body’ so to speak, my overall athleticism skyrocketed, and all the footwork and agility stuff I was doing not to be clumsy or awkward during my growth spurts multiplied the pay-off.”

Monica Abbott Scholarship Fund

One of her prime values is that female athletes should be treated with respect. Her decision to attend the University of Tennessee was based not only on their outstanding athletics programme, but was motivated also by how well their women sports stars were treated. In an interview with The Californian, Abbott said of the University: “More importantly to me, they loved their female athletes. I loved how much they rallied around women’s sports at that school, and that was a huge deal to me.” She is so grateful for the big life-changing opportunities that sport has given her as a top-level female athlete, that she has set up a scholarship fund to help schoolgirls further their sporting ambitions. In The Californian article it is stated, “In 2012, Abbott established the Monica Abbott Scholarship Fund to help high-school female athletes across the sports landscape. The scholarship of $1,000 each – which is awarded by the Community Foundation for Monterey County – is given to two graduating high-school female athletes. Abbott hopes to expand the eligibility for the scholarship as the fund grows.”

Her college career was one of sporting excellence, setting all-time records for pitching in seven different categories. Her obvious talents attracted the attention of the USA national team selectors, and she found herself on the plane to Beijing to be a part of the 2008 Olympic competition in Softball. Against The Netherlands, Abbott pitched the first perfect game in Olympic history, which is where the pitcher does not allow the batter to advance to bases either by throwing too many loose pitches (a walk) or making good contact with the bat (a hit).

The Beijing Olympics saw a renewal of one of the great rivalries in sport: USA and Japan are the dominant forces in Softball. They have contested every major Final in the sport since 2002, be that at the Olympics, the World Championship or The World Games. The format of the Beijing tournament saw these Softball giants meet three times. Abbot was dominant in the pool game and semi-final, not allowing any run. However in the final the Japanese pitcher restricted the Americans to just one run, allowing the Asian nation to claim the gold medal.

New Opportunities

In 2010, Abbott got the opportunity to play for the Toyota Red Terriers in the Japan Softball League. She had some hesitation in accepting the contract because of the long-standing rivalry between the two nations. However she enthusiastically embraced the opportunity, winning six JSL titles and being voted MVP in every title-winning season apart from 2014. Her successful career in Japan led the Houston-based Scrap Yard Dawgs to offer Abbott an unprecedented million dollar contract to play in the American National Pro Fastpitch league. Typically, the star pitcher’s thoughts turned to the impact her mega contract would have for other female athletes. She told the sports channel ESPN, "It represents an opportunity for the younger players in our game. For me, that's what I see in this deal. I see opportunities for other athletes, for the college girls coming in [to the league], for the college freshmen, for the 12-year-olds. I see opportunities for them to be only a professional Softball player – that is, not have to have another career, another job. Hopefully it just raises the bar of our sport."

Having achieved everything possible in the sport, there was just one unfinished piece of business left – an Olympic gold medal. The star American pitcher had her belated opportunity when Baseball and Softball were reinstated to the Games for the 2020 edition. In Beijing she had been the youngest player on the USA team; in the Covid-delayed Tokyo edition, she was the second oldest. Sadly the pandemic restrictions meant none of her many fans in both Japan and America could be in attendance. Equally sadly for Abbott, the Tokyo tournament mirrored her experience in Beijing; in the pool game against Japan, she prevented any runs on her pitching. However in the gold medal match, her Japanese counterpart did the same to a strong American batting line up. In sport, heartbreak and redemption go hand in hand; the Nemesis can often be confronted again to ensure a markedly different outcome.

Final international tournament – TWG 2022

A big figure in every sense (Abbott is 1.90 metres tall) and a big game player, Abbott deserved a big stage packed with cheering fans for her final international game. The Softball tournament at the 2022 edition of The World Games in Birmingham, Alabama provided such a platform. Birmingham native Haylie McCleney provided the big hitting that enabled Team USA to reach the final. As Abbott, McCleney and their team-mates stepped on to the field, they were greeted with a massive roar from the sold-out stands at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Their gold medal opponents were, inevitably, Japan! Would it be USA’s turn to triumph at their home Games, or would the Asian islanders seize the opportunity to become the concurrent Champions of the Olympics, the World and The World Games? In the second innings, Jannae Jefferson’s hit through centre field allowed three American batters to score. Japan came back strongly, scoring two runs in quick succession. However it was Abbott’s big-game experience that ensured Japan did not score again, despite having several promising opportunities. Gold to USA, ensuring that a legend of Softball also became a legend of The World Games, and in addition a career World Champion for the fourth time!

This was a fitting conclusion to a sporting career of great distinction and impact. Monica wrote recently on her Instagram page, “The Day has come for me to step away from the circle and from throwing 70+mph rise balls . For 20 years, I have lived the dream, playing Softball at the highest levels and representing my country. But the day has come where I know that I can do more for the game I love off the field than on. It’s been the most incredible journey .” Her playing career may be over, but she will still contribute to her sport, both as an athlete’s voice on the Athletes’ Committee of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, and as a coach, inspiring other girls to follow the same path of greatness. If you like trivia, you may well know that the tallest mountain in the Universe is found on Mars and is called Olympus Mons. So for now, it is farewell to Olympic Mon, a true giant of Softball.

 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN in 2025.