As softball returns to Olympics, Dot Richardson reflects on sport’s growth over the last quarter century

Japan 2020

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Twenty-five years ago, Dot Richardson and Team USA won the first ever Olympic softball gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Games.

As the sport makes its return, WFXR’s David DeGuzman got some perspective from the Liberty head softball coach, who’s considered to be one of the sport’s pioneers in the United States.

David DeGuzman (DD): Softball is back. And as a fan and as someone who competed in the Olympics, how excited are you to see this sport back on the world stage?

Dot Richardson (DR): Well my heart was just sinking when 2020, the pandemic hit, and no Olympics because I’ve known what it was like as a young girl to dream about representing your country in the Olympic games and being able to live it twice, in 1996 and 2000, there’s nothing like living the dream.

So now to have it in 2021, the right thing, I’m excited about it and I know that these athletes have been waiting a lifetime for this opportunity.

DD: You look back at that experience in 1996, how much of an impact did that have, especially with with United States winning on home soil? What did that do to the sport in this country?

DR: It almost rejuvenated the grass root level up and even those of us that were older, it rejuvenated us to realize our childhood dreams of being Olympians and it came to fruition. We lived the dream for all those that dreamt about it and for many that didn’t get the opportunity. But even bigger than that, we opened the door for the future. For those young girls to dream it and to work hard to live it. 

When you look back at the 96, I didn’t realize at the time, but they say it was the Title IX Olympics. What does that mean? What it meant was that you finally saw after Title IX the amendment that there cannot be any discrimination you know, for anyone receiving federal aid for gender and different issues like that. Well, I was a Title IX baby. And you look at all the rest of us when the ’96 Olympics. 

Look at USA, ’96 Olympic teams that were women’s teams that won. I mean I look back at gymnastics, look at volleyball, right, court and beach, and then you look at basketball, you looked at soccer, synchronized swimming, look at women’s softball and you look at it and go ‘wow’. 

What the difference it makes when you have opportunity and that’s all any of us can ask. Can we have the opportunity to express the gifts that God has given us? And for those of us that are athletes, it happened in ’96 at the highest stage. 

DD: How do you think the sport has changed here in the United States since ’96? So much has happened.

DR: Well I think the NCAA collegiate level is doing its part. When you look at it, I mean I have heard the viewership, first in football, then in men’s basketball and then women’s softball. Now the attendance, the viewership for that is huge but I think that’s happening a lot because of what has happened at the international level as well. 

When you look at the first professional league we ever had, and we’re talking 1976, that first professional level, those women became coaches in the NCAA, and they brought the game of that professional model here and that’s what we have now. What is it, 43 feet for the pitchers, a yellow ball with red seams, look at the fences, anywhere from 200 to 220 in center. Those were the dimensions of the first pro level. 

I have learned and I have been so blessed in my career to see the evolution of women in sport and particularly our sport of softball. From the first scholarships ever offered, to the first United States opportunities in certain sports, particularly in softball, including the first Olympics, it’s been the first NCAA championship. When I’ve been a part of that evolution, you look at it and you really take it serious about how far we have come. 

DD: This is a huge opportunity. We know that softball is in this kind of weird position where it’s not a permanent part of the program. It’s gonna be here for these Tokyo Games but not going to happen for Paris. It’ll probably be back for Los Angeles since it’s such a big sport in the United States.

What kind of opportunity does the United States have to be on this world stage to forward this sport and to take some steps toward making it better that it was before?

DR: Well, the exposure of the Olympics always helps. The exposure that you see every year in Oklahoma City with the NCAA Division I World Series is huge. But you know, you learn that life isn’t always fair. Sports teaches us that because we have umpires, and we have officials. They are human, making mistakes, but also, they are very good at what they do too. So I think the key is, there is politics in a lot of things. All you can learn to do, and you hear this a lot, is to control the controllable. 

All we can do is put a great product out there. The product begins with passion. Passion for the game ignites the game and the fanbase. That’s why people love watching fastpitch softball. They love to see women competing at the highest level. That is what gets viewership. 

That is exciting and the Olympic Games are just the hugest platform internationally. All we can do when we have that opportunity is to cease it and the product becomes so good and so big, but it takes the world to get better because if you look at Europe, there are some countries that play softball but there are a lot that don’t play baseball. 

It really comes to that moment politically about who are going to be the ones to say women deserve this opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. It’s a great product. Sponsors love it. TV exposure is huge. And I’d love to say it because oh it’s just the right thing to do but you also have to look at business. What is the business side of it? I think that knowing that dimension makes it a lot easier to set your goals, to make sure we can be secured in the Olympic games. 

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