The following was originally published on teamusa.org.
For many on Team USA's softball roster, the road to the grand stage of Olympic competition runs through a place more than 6,000 miles away: Oklahoma City.
Playing in front of packed crowds at the "Mecca of Softball" - the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex - during the Women's College World Series has prepared members for success in the Olympics now that the sport has returned. During its absence, the biggest stage for players was the collegiate tournament.
"After (softball) was voted out after the 2008 Games, I was in eighth grade and a really big dream died for me because you want to get to the Olympics," said Haylie McCleney (Alabama, softball), who played in multiple postseasons for the Crimson Tide. "You want to play in all the biggest stages in sports all over the world and for our sport to be taken out, it was really heartbreaking.
"So now you look at your goals when you are in middle school and high school: 'How elite can I get?' For a majority of softball players, it's college."
Awaiting Tuesday morning's gold medal game against Japan, the U.S. softball team has a chance to win its fourth gold in Olympic competition in five tries. In the final game of the opening round, Team USA clinched the top seed on a walk-off home run by Kelsey Stewart (Florida, softball).
For pitcher Cat Osterman (Texas, softball), who is 2-0 in the circle through the opening round, her experience competing in Olympic softball began while still on the Longhorns roster.
"I got an amazing coach who helped me to mature mentally and emotionally as well as physically in order to be ready for the (Olympic) stage in 2004," Osterman said. "To this day, I don't think when I was in college that I would think I'd be playing at 38. At the same time, I can look back and see where my college experience allowed me to get into the international game at such a young age."
Osterman, a two-time Olympic medalist, tossed six innings of one-hit, shutout softball to earn a win against Mexico on Saturday. A few days earlier, she also put up the same line and added nine strikeouts against Italy.
The roster includes a blend of seasoned veterans like Osterman and as well as a peppering of 2021 WCWS participants. Rachel Garcia (UCLA, softball), Bubba Nickles (UCLA, softball) and Dejah Mulipola (Arizona, softball) all competed in Oklahoma City this season.
For Mulipola, the Olympic experience is one to embrace the surroundings of top-tier international talent in order to take the next step in her softball career.
"I want to soak it all up like a sponge," she said. "I think that's so beneficial and still being a college athlete and having other college players on the team and being able to learn from other players who are older. I am literally soaking it up and embracing it."
In the opening round, Mulipola reached base twice in three plate appearances. Overall, the three most recent WCWS participants have reached base four times in eight plate appearances with a run scored.
Team USA ended up taking the silver medal after losing the gold medal game to the host nation of Japan on Tuesday morning. The game was a rematch of the gold medal game in 2000 and 2008 with Japan taking the gold medal in 2008, the only other year Team USA failed to claim the title.