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U.S. softball opens world champs with Olympic return on its mind

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Monica Abbott threw the final U.S. pitch at the last Olympic softball game, nearly 10 years ago.

Over the next 10 days, Abbott can help the U.S. softball team return to the Olympics by winning the world championship to secure the first available spot in the six-nation Tokyo 2020 tournament (not counting automatically qualified host nation Japan).

Softball returns to the Games after 12 years out of the Olympic program. It is not assured to remain in the Games for Paris 2024 and beyond, but what’s at stake the next two weeks makes this tournament arguably the biggest in the sport’s history aside from an Olympics.

“This world championship is more important than when I played,” said U.S. assistant coach Laura Berg, the only American to play all four previous Olympic softball tournaments from 1996 through 2008, earning three golds and one silver.

Berg noted that fewer nations are in the 2020 Olympic field (six) than at previous Olympics (eight) and that only the world champion crowned Aug. 12 in Chiba, Japan, qualifies for Tokyo 2020. (If Japan wins, then the runner-up qualifies.) For 2008, the top four nations from the 2006 Worlds made the Olympic field.

Continental tournaments in 2019 will round out the Olympic field, but nobody wants to wait another year for a last-chance qualifier. Some may see worlds as the beginning of the Olympic run-up. Not Berg. Not the Americans.

“These players have had it in their minds ever since softball got back in,” on Aug. 3, 2016, Berg said.

Baseball and softball were cut from the Olympic program by an IOC members vote in 2005, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936. A total of 105 IOC members were eligible to vote “yay” or “nay” on all Olympic sports. A majority was needed to remain in the Games.

Baseball went down 54-50. Softball was 52-52. One member abstained from each vote — American Jim Easton, who cited conflict of interest as he owned Easton Sports, best known for making baseball and softball bats. Had Easton voted for softball, it would still be in the Olympics. Had anybody switched in favor of softball, it would still be in the Olympics.

Critics said softball wasn’t global enough. Not popular in Europe. That the U.S. dominated. With the Olympic program capped at 28 sports at the time, cutting two sports would allow for two new ones to be added. That didn’t happen for 2012, but golf and rugby got onto the 2016 Olympic program.

Softball’s backers — led by longtime International Softball Federation president Don Porter — experienced further heartbreak when the IOC voted it down again in 2006 and 2009 (losing to rugby and golf for the Rio Games).

In 2013, baseball and softball proposed a joint bid with one sport opening for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. It lost a vote against wrestling and squash, with wrestling keeping its place in the Games after reforms. Wrestling: 49 votes. Baseball-softball: 24 votes. Squash: 22 votes.

“It’s almost like taking a bullet over and over and over again,” Abbott said.

Softball and other sports received new life for the 2020 Olympics when the IOC in December 2014 approved Agenda 2020, which included a provision that an Olympic host city could propose sports to be added for its edition of the Games, starting with Tokyo 2020.

Baseball and softball are among the most popular sports in Japan. Tokyo organizers submitted baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing in 2015. The IOC approved their inclusion for 2020, two days before the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“There was a sense of joy, happiness and also relief,” said Abbott, who watched the presentation and vote on a smartphone stream in an airport and on board a Southwest flight. “Yes, finally, they gave us a chance. … Tears of relief. Tears of joy. And tears of oh my gosh, we did it.”

Abbott was the youngest player on the 2008 Olympic team at age 23, coming off a record-shattering career at Tennessee. She beat Japan in the 2008 Olympic semifinals, then a day later relieved Cat Osterman in the gold-medal game won by the Japanese.

“Afterwards there was this sense that the last [Olympics] pitch was thrown,” said Abbott, the only Olympian on the world championship roster and the oldest player by nearly five years. “No. 1, we didn’t win, we didn’t do what we needed to do, but a sense of sadness and grief because that was going to be it.”

Abbott said her pitching career was saved by the opportunity to move to Japan after the Beijing Games and play in its professional league for a team sponsored by Toyota.

She’s now on her 10th season in the world’s most competitive league. She also suits up in the National Pro Fastpitch League in the U.S. (famously signing the league’s first $1 million contract with the Conroe (Texas) Scrap Yard Dawgs in 2016, spread over six years).

She skipped worlds in 2012, 2014 and 2016 in favor of playing in the NPF and promoting softball in the U.S.

The U.S. and Japan met in each of the last six world championship finals dating to 2002. If that’s the case next week, then the U.S. will clinch an Olympic berth before the first pitch of the gold-medal game.

“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” Berg said of Abbott. “She wants to be the one with the ball in her hands in the gold-medal game in 2020.”

MORE: 49-year-old Olympic champion plays first event in 10 years

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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chloe Kim, David Wise among X Games headliners

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The X Games return to Aspen, Colorado, this week at Buttermilk Mountain. A marquee event on the yearly snowboarding and freeskiing calendar, the X Games will feature a handful of Olympic gold medalists and notable names in action sports. Below are a few storylines to watch for this week:

Nearly full field of Olympic gold medalists will compete in Aspen

All four freestyle skiing gold medalists in X Games events (halfpipe, slopestyle) and five of six Olympic snowboarding champions (slopestyle, halfpipe, big air) are expected to compete in Aspen. Among them is Chloe Kim, who has not lost a contest since the Olympics. She finished last season with a win at the US Open, and has three victories already this season, including at the Dew Tour in December. Since the Olympics, Kim’s star has only grown: she’s thrown out the first pitch at a Dodgers game and become an awards show regular, but her ability to crush her competition on the pipe remains unchanged.

In addition to Kim, the three other U.S. gold medalists from 2018 should all contend: in men’s ski halfpipe, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist David Wise has continued to impress this season, but as in previous years, he’ll be challenged by his teammates, Aaron Blunck and Aspen native Alex Ferreira, who would skip school as a kid to watch the X Games in person. Snowboard slopestyle gold medalists Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson are both podium threats as well.

After missing Olympics, can Sildaru sweep in Aspen?

Three years ago, a quiet and unassuming Kelly Sildaru won her first X Games title at 13, becoming the youngest ever winner in a winter event. Pegged early as a star for the PyeongChang Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe, the Estonian teenager missed the Olympics with a torn left ACL. Sildaru, who hails from a country with no mountains, will attempt a rare triple in Aspen: she’ll compete in slopestyle, halfpipe, and big air. No winter sports athlete has ever won three gold medals at the same X Games contest. Sildaru missed last year’s event due to her knee injury and has looked sharp so far this season: she won the U.S. Grand Prix in halfpipe and the Dew Tour in slopestyle. Sildaru has four X Games medals in total: two in slopestyle and two in big air.

White’s protégé awaits his big moment

Toby Miller learned from the best: the 18-year-old was mentored by three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who brought Miller to PyeongChang as his guest. White hasn’t competed since the Olympics, focusing instead on skateboarding, while Miller is having a notable season of his own: he finished third at the Dew Tour and second at the U.S. Grand Prix. The U.S. halfpipe contingent remains deep: Olympians Jake Pates, Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey are all contenders on any given day, though PyeongChang bronze medalist Scotty James will likely be the favorite.

Big tricks

The X Games are often a staging point for new tricks: in 2017, Norway’s Marcus Kleveland became the first to land a quad in competition, only to be topped by Canadian Max Parrot, who won the event with a quad of his own. Chloe Kim and PyeongChang big air gold medalist Anna Gasser have been at the forefront of innovative tricks this season. Kim, a four-time X Games winner, is still far ahead of the field with back-to-back 1080s, which she used last weekend at a World Cup event in Laax. In October 2018, she became the first woman to land a frontside double cork 1080, though she has yet to execute it in competition. Kim can win easily with the arsenal of tricks she already has – but she’d make a bit of history if she decides to go for it.

In November, Gasser became the first woman to land a cab triple underflip, though like Kim, she has not done so in competition. Known for her progressive approach to the sport and impressive arsenal of difficult tricks, Gasser could attempt the triple at the X Games.