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White Rock, Surrey softball players land in Tokyo with Canadian Olympic team

Women’s national team arrives in Japan in advance of Summer Olympics
From left to right, Canada’s Janet Leung, Joey Lye, Erika Polidori and Kelsey Jenkins celebrate after Victoria Hayward, not seen, connected for an inside the park grand slam during opening-round action against Guatemala at the Softball Americas Olympic Qualifier tournament at Softball City on August 27, 2019. Canada finished the tournament 7-1 to capture one of two Olympic berths. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck photo)

A year later than originally planned, Team Canada has touched down in Tokyo.

After more than 24 hours of travel, including multiple flights and cities, a long bus ride and COVID-19 tests upon arrival, the Canada’s national women’s softball team – which includes a handful of players with Surrey, White Rock and Delta connections – arrived in Japan to prepare for the Summer Olympics, which are set to begin July 23. Prior to leaving for Japan, the team had been training in Florida and also in Southern Illinois, playing on the pro softball circuit as the Canadian Wild.

The softball tournament is the first event on the Olympic calendar, and actually begins two days before official opening ceremonies; Canada’s first game is set for July 21 against Mexico.

To suggest it’s been a long road for team members – including former White Rock Renegades Sara Groenewegen, Danielle Lawrie, Lauren Regula and Larissa Franklin, as well as Delta’s Kelsey Harshman – would be something of an understatement.

Softball has been off the Olympic docket since 2008 – only Lawrie, Regula, catcher Kayleigh Rafter and infielder Jenn Salling remain from that team, which finished fourth – and the 2020 Games were pushed forward to this summer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And even this summer’s event has felt touch-and-go in recent months, as Japan continues to struggle with COVID-19 cases and locals have called for the event to be cancelled. On Wednesday, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency as the number of positive cases continues to rise.

Last month, Groenewegen – who told Peace Arch News earlier this year that “it took some time to heal from the loss” of the 2020 Games – admitted that the long process to get to Tokyo only became real in recent weeks, once it was clear that the Olympics would go ahead as planned.

“It honestly hasn’t felt ‘close’ for me up until a meeting where our mental performance coach, who has a countdown on his computer, stated that the Games were 45 days away, and that’s where it hit me,” she told PAN, adding that throughout the training process, team members have been doing their best not to look too far ahead.

In early June, Groenewegen said it “would obviously be devastating” if the Olympics were cancelled at the last minute, but “thinking about ‘what- ifs’ will only harm the training and preparation we are putting in.”

Though Canada’s softball players are among the first to arrive for the Olympics, this year’s event will be different for all Olympians, no matter the sport. For starters, all athletes will be forced to follow strict quarantine and COVID-19 testing protocols, and they’ll have far fewer people there to cheer them on. No visitors from other countries will be allowed at all, meaning Canadians in all sports won’t have anyone cheering them on in person.

Though there is unease among some in the host country regarding the event going forward, Groenewegen said she and her teammates feel safe operating under the guidelines in place.

“We have been able to have a safe bubble environment for five-plus months without a single positive test, so we know softball and other athletic events are able to be played in a safe manner, and we trust the (International Olympic Committee) is doing everything possible in order to make the Games happen,” she said.

Though there won’t be any Canadians in attendance at Fukushima Azuma Stadium when Canada hits the field for its first game, Greg Timm – the longtime chair of South Surrey’s Canada Cup International Women’s Fastpitch Championship and a fervent supporter of the Canadian softball team – and other Semiahmoo Peninsula softball fans came up with a plan to show their support, even if they’ll be stuck watching on television from thousands of miles away.

At the White Rock Renegade-hosted Pride and Power tournament that was held last week at Softball City, organizers had a large banner on display, and urged people to sign it, along with a message of support for the team. The banner is set to be shipped to the Olympic squad in Japan, and an accompanying video message is also being created and uploaded to YouTube for team members to watch.

“In the proudest moment of their lives, on the biggest stage, they won’t be able to have their people there, so that’s a hard thing for them, I’m sure,” said Timm, who had originally planned to travel to Tokyo to watch the tournament before the pandemic scuttled his plans.

“We want to wish them good luck and let them know we’re with them. We want them to feel the support from home, even if we’re not there.”

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