Sweet home Alabama for MVP McCleney
For USA Softball, and hometown slugger Haylie McCleney in particular, the Hoover Met Stadium really did prove to be Sweet Home Alabama, as they inflicted revenge on Japan for their gold medal loss in the Tokyo Olympics. The packed out, partisan crowd was expectant for the biggest sporting moment of the entire Birmingham edition of The World Games. This clash represented the biggest non-Olympics match ever staged between the two titans of Softball. A double reward was on offer, not only The World Games gold but also the title of World Champions. Motivation is never an issue for these two sides, but for USA the painful memory of their Tokyo 2020 final where they were totally outplayed by the host nation, barely had a chance to score and were shut out, would have been more than sufficient. For Haylie McCleney this was truly a home Games in every sense. The star batter grew up in the Greater Birmingham Area, went to the University of Alabama and played for the famous Crimson Tide softball team. As a youngster she even sat in the stands of the Hoover Met Stadium watching her local baseball team. Fast forward a couple of decades and there is Haylie returning to that same stadium, together with her USA teammates running out for the World Championship final.
Japan early on in the game had a great chance to score, with all the bases loaded but got out. The same situation occurred later on and again Japan failed to capitalise. This scorning of opportunities proved costly. As Janae Jefferson stepped out to bat, she could see three of her USA teammates poised on the diamond. She swings, contact, the ball races away from Japan’s centre fielder towards the hoarding, the huge crowd roar and roar some more, three American runners batted in! In an edition of The World Games full of amazing moments this may be the most special of all. It certainly feels that way to the jubilant American fans!
Though Japan scored a couple of singles, they had given themselves too much to do. USA claimed the most coveted gold in Birmingham and the right to be called World Champions! For McCleney, the most prolific hitter in the tournament and therefore Most Valuable Player, the moment was extra special. “The Olympics was amazing and I’m really grateful I had that experience, but to be able to win a gold medal, to be declared a world champion 20 minutes from my hometown; you can’t write it any better than this”, she said.
The making of a true American great
The softball final also helped to cement the legendary status of American pitcher Monica Abbott, who won a record fourth World Championship title. She has also pitched in two Olympic finals, Beijing 2008 and Tokyo 2020, with Japan winning both golds. Her career path in Softball is the typical American path to sporting greatness. She developed her love of the sport at high school, her talent became readily apparent as she pitched for the University of Tennessee, a USA team place was soon hers, leading to international trophies, Olympic appearances and a contract in the Pro League in Japan. Her interest in inspiring the future generation of softball players and her role in international development of softball, was recognised by her sports federation who presented her with the IBSC Golden Diamond prior to the final against Japan.
The making of a true Cambodian great
Abbott trod a well-worn path on her journey to athletic fame. However, the Birmingham edition of The World Games has shown us there are alternative ways to become celebrated for your sporting talents. So if you have the ambition to not only be the best athlete in your sport, but the greatest sportsperson your country has ever produced, here is a simple guide on how you can achieve that!
Step 1 Try to be born in a country that is not very good at sport, a country that has has never produced an Olympic medalist nor even a World Champion, such as say Cambodia.
Step 2 Hang out in locations frequented by national coaches but only do a related activity to your chosen sport. Thus you can be throwing fruit on the ground and the coach will conclude that they are watching a future Petanque champion!
Step 3 Practise, practise, practise and then when done, practise some more. Get so confident in your ability that you can make any shot, no matter how much pressure you may be facing.
Step 4 Make sure you wait till you are in your mid 40s before you start your quest for international sporting glory and the affection of your countrymen! Admittedly this guide will not work for everyone, but for 47-year-old Ouk Sreymom it was a perfect blueprint! The night before, she had made history by becoming the first Cambodian to win a gold medal at a global multi-sports event. Ouk and Doubles partner Un Sreya Cam proved it was not a fluke by defeating France in the Petanque Doubles Final. So for the second consecutive day the Cambodian flag was raised, and an instant legend of The World Games was born!
So good, she can win gold on one leg!
Another legend is Paola Longoria, the best-ever player in Racquetball who already had two gold medals from The World Games stored in her enormous trophy cabinet. In Birmingham, The Mexican once again reached the final and made it a hat trick of victories. Her latest triumph is the most impressive yet, as she badly sprained her foot, yet even on one leg still proved she was the best! There was a big upset in the men's final, when Paola's compatriot and fellow world champion Rodrigo Montoya was beaten in straight sets by Andres Acuna, his gold medal making him the first ever athlete from Costa Rica to stand on a podium at The World Games.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
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 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and over 100 countries will take part in The World Games.