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Women’s Fast-pitch Softball Makes Its Olympic Debut

June 19, 1996 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) _ Years of frustration for American softball players ends this summer when the sport makes its Olympic Games debut July 21.

``Either we wore them down,″ said Don Porter, executive director of the Amateur Softball Association, ``or they gave it to us just to keep us quiet.″

Making it even sweeter for Porter and American stars Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson is the fact that Team USA is favored to win the gold medal in the eight-team, round-robin competition at 8,500-seat Golden Park, the home of the minor-league Columbus RedStixx. The ballpark in this southwest Georgia city has undergone a $1.8 million facelift for the Olympics.

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Other participating teams are Puerto Rico, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Australia, China, Japan and The Netherlands. Thirty-two games will be played, culminating with the championship game July 30.

``We pounded away at it. It’s been a 30-year challenge,″ Porter said. ``It took a while, but it’s worth it. It certainly took a part of my life.″

Porter began lobbying the International Olympic Committee to make softball an Olympic event in 1962. It came close to gaining medal status in 1984, again in 1988 and in 1992 before finally getting approval in June 1991 for the ’96 Games.

The U.S. squad is led by Fernandez, a four-time All-America at UCLA, who plays third base when she’s not pitching. The glue of the team is the shortstop, Richardson, who at 34 is the oldest member of the team. Pitcher Christa Williams is the youngest at 18.

Fernandez relishes the role of the U.S. team being the favorites.

``Going to the Olympics isn’t our sole goal. Going to the Olympics isn’t enough. We want to win the gold,″ she said. ``If we win the silver, it would be a disappointment.

``We have one thing in mind, and that’s to win a gold medal.″

Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon who graduated from UCLA in 1983, planned to retire after medical school but changed her mind in 1991 when it was announced that softball would be a medal sport in the 1996 games.

``I feel that through me, everyone from the past can live this experience, because this is not just about Dot Richardson or this team, this is about all of them also,″ she said.

``This is a dream. We are living our dreams, and it doesn’t stop until we get our goals.″

She, of course, was referring to winning the gold.

That places added pressure on the Americans, who are overwhelming favorites for the gold.

``They will feel the pressure. It’s not the national championship, and it’s not the world championship. This is the Olympics, the first one,″ Porter said. ``They certainly are the major favorites. But I don’t think it’s a lock. There are several teams that could be up there on the gold medal stand.

``When you get into Olympic competition, what you did in the past doesn’t always mean anything. The U.S. is a strong team, but there are two or three, maybe four others. China, Australia and Japan should do well, and Chinese Taipei, a young team, has developed quite well. They’re all going to be contenders.″

Ralph Raymond, coach of the 15-member inaugural squad, has an imposing international record.

As coach of the USA women’s national teams, Raymond has won five gold medals in International Softball Federation play, including three consecutive titles (1986, 1990, 1994) for a combined record of 72-1.

His team also have produced 12 other gold medals representing the United States in international competition. Since 1986, they are 110-1 in international play, losing only to China, 1-0, in the Superball ’95 tournament last summer at Golden Park.

The Americans recovered, however, and beat China 8-0 in the title game.

``Being named softball’s first Olympic coach was a pinnacle point in my career,″ said Raymond. ``But now we have another mountain to climb. Winning the gold medal will mean I’ve finally reached the top of the mountain.″

The burden of being favored to do just that doesn’t bother Raymond.

``I don’t think there’s any pressure,″ he said. ``It’s just that you never know. Hopefully, we’ll be ready for anything that comes along.″

End advance for June 22-23 and thereafter