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Future Olympians Embrace College Return, Olympics Preparation

(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

College softball players around the nation have had to adjust their current and future plans due to the shortened season. Seniors are trying to figure out if they can create a plan for one last go around, others are finding new schools that promise playing time and more simply are attempting to stay active in a time when they’re used to playing.

For Arizona’s Dejah Mulipola, as well as UCLA’s Bubba Nickles and Rachel Garcia, their future plans with softball were altered in many ways. The trio of student-athlete Olympians made the choice to return to play for their respective schools in 2021, while also playing in the delayed Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

All three thought about sitting out another year and returning to college in 2022, but a 2021 return was simply the best choice for them.

“I’m super excited to have the opportunity to join the Bruins again for my senior season,” Nickles said. “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity and also play in the Olympics the same year. It’s really something that came out of nowhere and we didn’t truly expect (it), but I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

UCLA’s Kelly Inouye-Perez and Arizona’s Mike Candrea sounded like kids in a candy shop talking about their players returning. Inouye-Perez adds two of the nation’s top players to a team that only lost one game this year in their absence.

“To get them back with their teammates they won the national championship with, to have the ability to defend the title is something we’ve been on a really big high (about) for so many reasons,” Inouye-Perez said. “They’re more than just softball players. They’ve added to our culture, there’s an energy, excitement and camaraderie with these two and what they bring to UCLA softball.”

Candrea gets back arguably the most talented catcher in college softball to put back into a lineup with Jessie Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. Although, it’s not just her on-field performance that excites him. Arizona will welcome one of the country's best freshman classes next season, and Candrea believes the things Mulipola picked up while with Team USA will help the younger Wildcats grow.

“(She’s an) experienced, great leader, someone we dearly missed,” Candrea said. “To me, she’s the total package. She’s become a really strong leader for our program and there were times we dearly missed her. I’m very excited to have her athletic talent back, but more importantly, her presence on a day-to-day basis. She makes other people better...She’s a kid that everyone looks up to.”

Inouye-Perez was grateful to USA Softball and Coach Ken Eriksen for allowing the future Olympians to return to college in 2021.

“I really commended Coach Eriksen and USA Softball for being able to allow these girls to do both. To be able to look out for what is best for the student-athletes,” Inouye-Perez said. “For them to take two years off of school is difficult for anyone. But to allow them to finish their degrees and continue to train, which is what we believe is just the best environment. The three collegiate athletes, I believe, are going to be ahead knowing they are going to have a regular training routine and they’ll be able to compete against higher-level competition.”

Perhaps the biggest transition the three athletes will make is going back to being students. Mulipola believes the process will be similar to returning to college from summer break.

“It’ll be a little bit of a challenge,” Mulipola said. “It’s like that break after summer and you have to get back into the grind of school. I have to get my brain working again. I think that’ll be what it’s like.”

But just because they haven’t been nose deep in textbooks on campus doesn’t mean the learning has stopped. Nickles and Mulipola have acted as sponges trying to absorb as much information from some of the best softball players to ever play the game.

“When you’re on tour, it’s just softball,” Mulipola said. “Everything you’re focused on is softball. Fueling yourself correctly and getting fueled mentally off the field. You’re a professional athlete and you need to handle that responsibly. You’re an adult, on and off the field. That’s bettered me as an athlete and person.”

For Nickles, the day-to-day process of being an elite athlete was the biggest lesson of life on the tour.

“The biggest thing I picked up from (my USA teammates) was how disciplined they were with their own routines and how consistent they were,” Nickles said. “They all get up early and either go read or journal, some type of alone time. It’s something at my age I see that, that’s a good idea, I should probably do that. It prepares you for the day, mentally prepares you for practices and games. I learned that with that discipline they had, it helps them feel completely in the moment of a practice or a game.”

Approaching what is shaping up to be a banner 2021 for the three future Olympians, those types of lessons should prove to be invaluable.

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