The call they were dreading finally came on the eve of an exhibition game in Seattle. It was March 11, barely a month into USA Softball’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, and suddenly coaches told them to pack their bags. It was over. The COVID-19 pandemic had forced them to postpone at least the next three stops on their schedule, and a return to action seemed doubtful.
In a matter of hours, everyone was on the way home to ponder an uncertain future.
Dejah Mulipola, Bubba Nickles and Rachel Garcia were the only three amateurs on a team full of professionals. They weren’t legends Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott, who are in their late 30s and have played in previous Olympics.
They were in their early 20s and seniors in college — Mulipola at Arizona and Nickles and Garcia at UCLA. They had redshirted and left school to prepare for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. They were excited to be part of something special: softball’s triumphant return to the world stage after 12 years away.
And here they were, back in their respective childhood homes in California, lying in their old beds as if they’d been transported back to high school.
For days, they were in limbo.
“All of us were questioning,” said Nickles, an outfielder, “are they going to postpone the Olympics? Are they going to cancel it? We had no idea.”
Then, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee made its long-awaited announcement that the Games would be rescheduled to begin on July 23, 2021 — almost exactly a year after they had been due to start.
It was welcomed news, but it also raised an important question specific to Mulipola, Nickles and Garcia: Would they be expected to miss a second straight collegiate season to be part of Team USA? Redshirting had long been the norm because it provided the training time and exhibition games necessary for coaches and players to build chemistry heading into the Olympics.
Missing another year would be a lot to ask. There was also their education to consider.
Mulipola was at her grandparents’ house, spending time with them as she did every day during quarantine, before stepping into a bedroom to take a call from Arizona coach Mike Candrea. He told her he was 99% sure she wouldn’t have to choose. She remembers him saying all they had to do was “cross our t’s and dot our i’s” for her to play in college and the Olympics. Team USA coach Ken Eriksen called later to reaffirm that the decision went for all three women.
“I cried,” said Mulipola, a catcher. “There were so many overwhelming emotions of being in quarantine, being in home, not knowing what’s next, and then being rewarded that you can come back and the Olympics is still going to be a dream for you.”
Garcia said they were getting the best of both worlds.
“It was so crazy,” Nickles said. “Like in the same year? That’s unheard of.”
The next few months stuck at home weren’t easy, but knowing they’d have a once-in-a-lifetime experience carried them through.
Garcia, a dominant two-way player at pitcher and first base who was coming off back-to-back espnW Player of Year honors, scratched a competitive itch by playing cornhole with her dad in the front yard almost every day. They played darts, too, her dad dominating so much that she challenged him to play left-handed to even the odds.
Nickles, an All-American who led all Pac-12 players in RBIs and hits in 2019, laughed as she described scavenging for old workout equipment in the family storage room. There were resistance bands and dumbbells she was sure were from another century. She lifted water jugs and ran stairs in their two-story house to say in shape.
It was a nostalgic experience, training with their fathers for the first time in years.
Nickles felt like a kid again, the sight of her dad tossing her sunflowers seeds and the ping of them crashing into her bat.
“That was probably the most fun way of training to be on an Olympic roster,” she said. “We’d laugh about it because he’d say, ‘This feels like you’re 10 again. But you’re preparing for the Olympics now and we’re still doing the same things.'”
Knowing there wouldn’t be a break between the college season and rejoining Team USA, they had to pace themselves. Garcia said it has been important to take a breath from time to time.
Mulipola, the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year in 2019, and Candrea decided she wouldn’t catch the third game of each four-game series, playing DP instead, to reduce the wear and tear on her knees.
Nickles credited her coaches for allowing her the freedom to navigate doing enough in terms of workouts while avoiding doing too much and risking burnout.
“There were so many overwhelming emotions of being in quarantine, being in home, not knowing what’s next, and then being rewarded that you can come back and the Olympics is still going to be a dream for you.”
More than anything, though, the support of their college and Olympic teams have made a challenging situation manageable. Not being with Team USA training has been difficult, but they’ve been able to participate in meetings remotely thanks to Zoom calls. Nickles said she’s been thankful for the way her Olympic teammates have reached out to her during the season, offering their support.
Mulipola, Nickles and Garcia have leaned on one another as well, setting aside the UCLA-Arizona rivalry. Garcia said she and Mulipola message one another on Snapchat almost daily. Nickles and Garcia aren’t just teammates; they’re next-door neighbors as well.
“It can get a little overwhelming when we’re focused on college and having to report back for the Olympic team,” Nickles said. “… Managing it, it’s that support system whether it’s our college coaches or our Olympic teammates, they’ve been so supportive in knowing that it’s probably a lot. Especially with it being our last year, we have a little more on our plate finishing school. It’s been a blessing to have so much support and grace given to us because we’re not perfect and we’re not going to get this right.”
Being sent home from Washington and being apart from their teammates and coaches for so long was a reminder of how good they had it before. Nickles said it really resonates now that, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Garcia has been through four knee surgeries in her career, so she knows all too well what it means to feel like the game has been taken away. Looking back, she said that what happened was actually a “blessing in disguise” because of the time she was able to spend with her family and how the delay in the Olympics wound up giving them even more time to prepare.
What’s more, all three women now have the chance to do something unimaginable: to try to win a Women’s College World Series and a gold medal in the same year.
Mulipola led Arizona to the 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, hitting the second-most home runs in the Pac-12 (19) and fourth-most RBIs in the country (60). She continued to hit with power during the NCAA regionals last weekend, hammering two home runs during a win against Ole Miss on Saturday, as the Wildcats advanced to the super regionals, where they will face Arkansas on Friday.
Despite Nickles being sidelined for much of the season by a wrist injury, UCLA managed to earn the 2-seed in the thanks in large part to Garcia, who won Pac-12 Player of the Year yet again, leading the nation in earned run average (0.78) while also ranking in the top 50 in on-base percentage (.508).
Garcia went 4-for-8 at the plate with a home run, two RBIs and three walks in three regional wins last weekend. For her Bruins to make their sixth consecutive WCWS, they need to stave off elimination after losing to Virginia Tech in Game 1 of the super regionals on Thursday.
“It’s insane to me that I get to do both,” Garcia said. “To get my degree, to finish out softball and then on top of that to get to represent the USA, it blows my mind.
“It’s a unique year, and I’m super excited for what these next few months have to offer.”