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Three former Gators say SEC prepped them for Olympics

119 days ago
Isaiah Houde | SEC Network

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics marked a special time in history for the Florida Gators, and for softball in general. It wasn't an Olympic sport until 1996 and was removed from the program in 2012 and 2016, but it was approved for a one-off in 2020.

Three Florida players made the 2020 USA Team and they were the first to represent the program on that stage. Aubree Munro and Kelsey Stewart were apart of Tim Walton's groups that had back-to-back national title wins in 2014 and 2015, while Michelle Moultrie had a legendary tenure from 2009-2012.

Each player had storied careers that stemmed from Walton's guidance and the competition level in the Southeastern Conference. 

Munro earned numerous accolades in her four years at Florida as its catcher, while wrapping up her senior year with SEC All-Defensive Team honors. She always had dreams of playing for Team USA and discussed the exact moment that it became a goal of hers. 

"I was in fourth grade when the Olympics was in Athens in '04 and that year all my projects centered around Red, White and Blue, or wanting to play for Team USA," Munro said, via TeamUSA.org. "It's a dream come true and I'm SO grateful for the opportunity to further the sport and hopefully help my younger sisters to have the same dream."

While appearing at an autograph session at the 2022 Women's College World Series, Munro further explained how impactful the SEC was to her growth as an Olympic player.

"I think it helped with my maturity as a player, and the ability to be a professional," Munro told SEC Network's Emily Proud. "The way coach Walton trained us and the way we were supposed to approach the game was professional, even at the collegiate level. I just felt really prepared, because coach Walton was a tough coach, especially for catchers.

"I felt very well prepared, having some real game sense and savvy. It was fun to see that translate to the next level and to still be able to communicate with him even after playing for him. Being able to check in with him, and he would help me with my swing still."

Stewart and Munro played alongside each other from 2013 to 2016 and their relationship continued to strengthen as they progressed in their careers. Stewart was just as decorated during her time with the Gators, including an SEC Player of the Year award in 2016. 

"It's really cool, I got to play under Tim Walton. Best coach I think, maybe a little biased, but he's the best coach," Stewart said with a smile. "He did a really good job of preparing us and never letting us be satisfied. I think that's something you kind of have to embody with Team USA, never being satisfied and always having a target on your back.

"Playing at Florida, no matter who you play, everyone wants to beat you. Just kind of transferring that from Florida to USA and then every time you step on the field, everyone is gunning for you. He had me ready for all the softball parts, but it was the other stuff mentally that he really prepared me for."

Moultrie's time at Florida didn't overlap with Steward and Munro, but she was SEC Player of the Year as a senior and she still held her lessons from Florida as she played in the Olympics. 

"It was huge for me, I think just learning to play at such a high level in such a competitive conference," Moultrie said. "Now when I'm with USA, whenever I face pressure I feel like I like learned in college how to overcome that and to be able to take on a big moment. Also, to be able to say 'okay, we've practice and prepared for this, so I can go out there and I don't have to be afraid of losing or anything. But to compete with the best you have to go as hard as you can.

"I can look back at those experiences and I can remember making mistakes at the World Series and just saying, 'I made it past it and I still have another at-bat.' Stuff like this really helped me be able to get through big moments and prepared me for Team USA and playing professionally after."

Playing for Team USA was a special experience and Munro dove into the initial feeling when she made the roster. Team USA took home the silver medal after losing the gold medal game to host Japan.

"Oh my gosh, it's an honor," Munro said. "The first time I ever put the uniform on I took a mirror picture and it was for media day. I sent it to my mom and my sister and I was like, 'I can't even believe this.' First time I heard the National Anthem in that uniform was special and after hearing it at the Olympics, I was misty-eyed that first game. It's really special, it's a huge honor and one that we never took lightly."

Walton's leadership and guidance was crucial for these experiences and he's now guiding a resilient group of players through the 2022 WCWS. 

Softball was taken off the list of sports for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but it isn't fully ruled out for 2028 in Los Angeles. If the International Olympic Committee agrees to bring it back, there will surely be some of Walton's former players in contention for roster spots once again.