Canada's Victoria Hayward Talks Olympics, Athletes Unlimited
Victoria Hayward has played softball at every competitive level the sport has to offer. She graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington, played professionally in National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) after that as well as with Athletes Unlimited (AU) and helped Canada win its first Olympic softball medal earlier this summer.
In this interview with her, we discuss her time at the Tokyo Olympics as well as the upcoming AU softball season.
Softball America: What was it like to help Canada win its first-ever Olympic medal in softball?
Victoria Hayward: The first Olympic medal in Softball Canada history—it still gives me chills thinking about it.
When I think about our team’s journey, I think about more than last year. I think of the last four years we spent training and preparing for what we called our “moonshot”—our chance to shock the softball world.
At the last two World Championships, we finished solidly in third place, feeling like we’d switched the conversation from Canada competing for third or fourth to Canada competing for a spot in the gold medal game and to stand atop the podium.
The mindset switch took a few years, but it finally felt like we’d proven to ourselves and to our opponents that we belonged in the conversation, and we were a force to be reckoned with. Once we’d established that we belonged, it became a part of our daily conversation, visualization and mindset.
SA: What types of challenges did the pandemic pose when you were preparing for the Olympics?
VH: Training in 2020 was incredibly challenging. Gyms were closed, training was canceled and it really forced us to get creative in terms of our preparation. I remember using bath towels and doing resistance holds to maintain our strength when we had no access to gyms or weights.
The pandemic threw a huge wrench into our preparation, but our team really took advantage of the additional year. We worked hard to stay connected during 2020 by doing mental training, video review and learning together.
Our team did so much learning over the additional year—learning about our opponents, learning how to hit particular pitches, learning more about our mechanics and what makes us successful. It was huge for our team in our development.
SA: What were some of your favorite moments at the Olympics?
VH: Many of my favorite moments happened on the field—getting the first hit and scoring the first run of the Olympics in our opening game versus Mexico. Watching so many of my teammates have personal performances that felt like storybook endings to their illustrious careers: Jenn Salling, Danielle Lawrie, Jenna Caira, Joey Lye, Lauren Bay-Regula, Jen Gilbert and our rock, Kaleigh Rafter. And, of course, that feeling of overwhelming pride when we secured our first-ever Olympic medal.
Off the field, our team did such an incredible job remaining present. Throughout the tournament, before and after games we would stand arm in arm in what we call our “oxy circle” and bring ourselves to the moment. We’d feel the feels, make eye contact with one another and soak it all in—the highs and the emotional lows—together through it all.
To share such an incredible experience with women who have sacrificed so much, spending months at a time away from children and loved ones, pouring everything they have into representing Canada is something that simply cannot be put into words and simply put has been the greatest honor of my life.
SA: The Athletes Unlimited season is beginning soon. How are you resetting your focus for that?
VH: The Olympics and Athletes Unlimited are such different beasts, but the game is still the game. Our Olympic journey was years of a grind for six games. So in a sense, the journey was the preparation—the hours spent with teammates in the cages and alone working on my craft.
AU is done in the blink of an eye. It's 15 games over five weeks with teammates changing weekly. It almost feels like reaching the postseason in the NCAA. The practices are over and now it’s time to compete. AU is so much more than just games, it’s a great environment to grow personally, learn from the amazing athletes around you and build relationships as we work to grow professional opportunities for women in our sport.
SA: How do you think opportunities like AU change the way future players can continue their careers?
VH: I think Athletes Unlimited is absolutely changing the way people think about their careers. Before AU, I was unsure about my career beyond the 2020 Olympics. Here I am now, competing in my second AU season with no plan of retirement anytime soon.
We’ve created an incredible culture within our league, and it is much more than just softball. It gives athletes an opportunity to share our journeys and give back to the game and causes we love. I expect to see the average age of professional softball players rise as we continue to grow, and hopefully there will be more full-time professional softball players.