Olympics: UMass softball coach Danielle Henderson reflects on Sydney games, softball’s return


Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2021 7:26:32 PM

The commercials bring Danielle Henderson’s memories flooding back every four years — or in this case five.

UMass’ softball coach won a gold medal with the United States softball team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She graduated from UMass in 1999 after leading the Minutewomen to the College World Series twice and as the team’s all-time leader in strikeouts, earned-run average, shutouts and wins.

After pitching at the Pan-American Games that summer, throwing a perfect game against Colombia, Henderson was named to the 15-player Olympic team.

“I was one of the rookies, I was a year out of college,” Henderson said. “Being in those Games and what that all means and winning that gold medal… everyone’s there to try and win a gold medal, or at least medal, so that adrenaline.”

The opening ceremonies still stick out in her mind. She and more than 10,000 athletes paraded into the Stadium Australia in front of 110,000 spectators.

“The entire time you’re there, you get to meet other athletes. While you’re in he holding cell before you get to walk in before your country is called, you get to mingle with a bunch of different athletes,” Henderson said. “You’re with your team. It’s you and your teammates who are going up and mingling with other athletes.”

No one too recognizable, though.

“Those athletes are kind of separated from everybody else. They’re put in a special area. The ones that you’re meeting are just all of us average athletes,” Henderson joked.

These are still the best athletes in the world, after all.

As one of the team’s newcomers, Henderson didn’t expect a ton of playing time behind experienced pitchers  Lisa Fernandez and Michele Smith, both gold medalists from the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She did pitch in one game against Cuba, a 3-0 win in the USA’s second game. Henderson threw five innings, striking out seven and walking one.

“It was kind of surreal. You’re pitching in front of more people than you’ve ever pitched in front of in your life,” Henderson said. “The energy of the Olympics, whatever hype they show you on TV, it’s all of that.”

The U.S. won its first two games against Canada and Cuba before losing its next three games, two in extra innings against Japan (12-1 in 11) and Austraila (2-1 in 13). Shutout wins over New Zealand and Italy put the Americans into the semifinal round as the No. 4 seed. The Sydney Olympics used a Page playoff system where the No. 1 seed faced the No. 2 seed and the No. 3 seed played No. 4 in the semifinals instead of a seeded bracket that featured one vs. four and two vs. three. The winner of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 semifinal (Japan) automatically advanced to the gold medal game, while the loser dropped to the bronze medal game against the No. 3 / 4 winner. The U.S. beat China 3-0 to reach the bronze medal game, where they beat Australia 1-0. Australia, the hosts, earned the bronze medal while the USA moved on to the gold medal game, where they beat Japan 2-1 in eight innings.

“The Olympics was something special,” Henderson said. “What we think of softball, our college softball is huge. When you compete against other countries, it’s something different. For a lot of other countries, it’s all they have to compete for their national teams. There’s a lot more pride, pride for your country, and each team has that.”

Henderson didn’t have an excess of free time in Sydney but was able to attend “one or two” other events and move between the Olympic village and downtown Sydney easily.

“It’s going to be weird for all of them right now during COVID,” Henderson said.

Softball appeared in two more Olympics after Sydney. The U.S. won gold in Athens in 2004 and silver in Beijing in 2008. There hasn’t been an Olympic softball tournament since, and it’s not currently on the program for Paris in 2024.

“It’s sad because you could see all these other countries continuing to get better. They get better because everyone wants to win an Olympic medal. So the countries actually invest in the program. Invest financially, invest in letting the people travel and learn,” Henderson said. “When it’s no longer an Olympic sport, all of that funding gets cut. You see all those countries that could grow and get better fall off and they’re no longer doing it. Certain countries had to pay to be able to play for their national team. You’re not going to be able to get the best players when you do that.”

But she’s relished watching the matches in Tokyo. There are only six teams who will play in a round robin. The top two seeded teams will play in the gold medal game, while No. 3 and No. 4 will face off for the bronze.

“I’ve been quite excited to watch it. It’s great to see it back. You see that there’s probably a different pressure because nobody knows when it’s going to be back in,” Henderson said. “All of these games count. You’re either going to be competing for the gold medal or the bronze. It’s a higher level of intensity.”

Henderson thinks the extra year to prepare and develop may have helped the Americans, who won their first two games and play Mexico early Saturday morning.

“I wish them the best and hope they bring back the gold,” she said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk. 
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