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Michele Smith Talks Athletes Unlimited, 2021 Olympics, More

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(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Michele Smith is one of the most recognizable faces in the world of softball. She was an All-American at Oklahoma State, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA and now works as a softball analyst for ESPN.

Softball America caught up with Smith to discuss Athletes Unlimited, the 2021 Olympics, college softball and plenty more.

Softball America: We just saw Athletes Unlimited wrap up its inaugural season. Cat Osterman dominated the league this year. What did you think of Cat’s performance?

Michele Smith: I think Cat showed her ability to dominate in the circle. Cat is an example of hard work and dedication and what can happen when you trust yourself. Cat knows her strengths and relies a lot on spin and location. I’ve worked with Cat and know she could be throwing harder, but she knows location and spin are her strengths. To come out of retirement and perform this way just shows the type of athlete and teammate Cat is.

SA: As much as Cat dominated in the circle, she also dominated as a coach. What were some things you noticed about Cat and the way she led an almost entirely new group of athletes week in and week out?

MS: I think, most importantly, Cat showed how important it is to have a catcher you can trust. Cat picked Gwen Svekis every week and they were fantastic together. Cat also knows how to win and brings that mindset to her team. She knows to win you need strong team chemistry and her teams had that week in and week out.

SA: Who were some of the other athletes from Athletes Unlimited who stood out to you as a viewer?

MS: Haylie McCleney is so outstanding with her defense in the outfield and what she can do at the plate. Also, Sahvanna Jaquish hit bomb after bomb, she was a lot of fun to watch. Jessie Warren had a great run as well, especially right at the end of the season.

SA: Looking forward to the next season of Athletes Unlimited, what do you expect to see out of the league?

MS: I expect athletes to come out and be excited every year just to play the game, whether there’s a pandemic going on or not. I also think the directors will find their niche audience since there are differences from the traditional game of softball with the point system and not having coaches. I also think we will see more athletes start to resurface and connect with softball fans again, like Jessie Warren did with the league this year.

SA: The Olympics were postponed this year. Having been an Olympian, how do you stay focused during a time like this?

MS: You have to focus on your mental training just as much as your physical training. I know when I was training, I could throw intense bullpens all I wanted, but something about being in a game just adds that pressure to you as an athlete. It’s important to try and find a way to get as many live reps as possible, especially for Olympic athletes.

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SA: Do you think it’s important for Team USA to keep the same team they have in place for 2021, or do you think there should be another tryout?

MS: I think there is an obligation to the athletes that made the 2020 team that they will play in the Olympics. Obviously, with the pandemic, the Olympics were not able to happen, so those athletes didn’t get the opportunity, so I think they should keep the team together. However, if one of the athletes on the team shows up and they’re out of shape and not ready to go, I think then there would be just cause for a tryout to find an athlete who is more ready to compete for Team USA.

SA: Congratulations on the success of the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational. The tournament has been a huge success already, but what can we expect from the tournament in the future?

MS: This tournament is the first stand-alone women’s event to be sponsored by ESPN Events and the partnership of ESPN with this tournament is vital to its success. This tournament also allows fans of the game to see softball early at a time when basketball is at its peak. Coaches also have the opportunity to check in on their team and see where they stand against quality competition early in the season. A tournament like this also allows for team togetherness at a time when athletes can compete and enjoy some normalcy while also being faced with competitive adversity.

SA: The St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational was the largest softball tournament we saw televised this year since the World Series was postponed. What are your thoughts on the 4,000-seat expansion in OKC?

MS: The Women’s College World Series is a bucket list item for any softball fan, so having more seats just means more fans getting to watch the sport. I think it is a strong reflection of the way Oklahoma City has invested in this event and provided great support over the years. The city has been a great host to the tournament.

SA: You’ve had the pleasure of calling a lot of great games at the World Series. What are some of your favorite moments throughout the tournament’s history?

MS: There are so many it’s hard to narrow down just one moment. I recently remember the epic Florida vs. Oklahoma 17-inning marathon, or Tiffany Howard’s leaping catch, Jessie Warren’s diving catch and Washington’s great run in the same year. There have been so many I feel like I have to think about the games year by year.

SA: Now that we’ve looked back, let’s look forward. The future of softball is wide open, where do you see the sport headed?

MS: I think softball is a great and accessible sport for girls of all ages, but especially young girls to get involved in. Softball also allows parents to coach their daughters and get involved with their kids in that way. I would like to see a more sustainable professional league, like they have in Japan, here in the United States. I think investing in that will have a larger effect on the youth levels of the sport.

SA: With everything going on in the world today, what’s something softball-related that has inspired you?

MS: I recently worked with a softball charity tournament here in Florida and it was just amazing to see young girls back on the field playing freely without worry. It was a great success and to be a charity event made it even better.

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