A group of medal winners returned to Spokane recently with little fanfare. No marching bands or media outlets welcomed them home, though the Spokane senior women’s softball team brought home the bronze.
The lack of recognition came as no surprise to them. As far as team members know they are the only senior women’s softball team in Washington, Idaho, Oregon or Montana. In fact, they had to jump through a lot of hoops just to qualify for the National Senior Games. Member Lola Lile said to qualify they played in the men’s over-60 league and in the Spokane County women’s slow-pitch league.
They had never played against another senior women’s team until their first game in San Francisco at the 2009 Summer National Senior Games on Aug. 10. They lost 20-0. But like true champions, they didn’t let it daunt them. Darlene Lenz, 75, said, “We found out all that team did was go to tournaments and play. They could hit that ball wherever they wanted to.” Then she laughed and said that after that game, “We just figured they were in the wrong league.”
For Lenz, softball is a family affair. Her 52-year-old daughter, Robin Lenz, is a teammate. Though the family is from Coeur d’Alene, they and two other women traveled to Spokane to practice.
Lile said team members were nervous and excited about the opportunity to compete against their peers. “We didn’t sleep the night before,” she said. “That first game was hard on us, but we came back and won the next two.”
Quite an accomplishment considering they played in the 50-to-54 age bracket, though team members range in age from 50 to 75. “Most of us are 55 to 60,” said Lile, who declined to reveal her age. “I’ll put it this way,” she said with a laugh. “I’m over 50.”
Lile describes herself as the “quintessential tomboy.” She grew up in a small Montana town and said she’s always played softball. “When you love something, you don’t want to stop doing it.”
Others on the team share her passion. For LaDonna Schuster, the August games were her second visit to the “Senior Olympics.” She and 14 other players competed at the games in Baton Rouge, La., in 2001. For her, bringing home the bronze was validation of their efforts. “We’ve been trying to build a women’s senior softball league since 2000,” she said.
The reason men’s softball leagues thrive while the women’s league languishes is no mystery to Schuster. She said many women put away their baseball gloves when their children pick up their own mitts. “When they had children, they stopped playing,” she said. “Moms and grandmas have always gone to watch their kids and grandkids play.”
That was Sally Sullivan’s experience. She grew up with the game. “My dad was always pitching to my brother and me,” she said. “I caught for my brother when he was learning to pitch.” Her softball-playing days curtailed with the birth of her daughter. “I took time off to watch her games. I didn’t have time to play myself.”
Now, the 54-year-old said it’s again her turn to get off the bleachers and out onto the field. “I just love the game,” Sullivan said.
While the basic game is the same, the senior softball league has modified the rules to help members avoid injuries. For instance, a designated runner can be used, provided the player can make it to first base, and sliding is prohibited.
Sullivan called competing in the games “inspiring” and observed a key difference between the men’s and women’s games. “The women’s teams seemed to have more fun. They were out there laughing and chatting. The men seemed more serious.”
The women may enjoy themselves, but make no mistake, they are consummate competitors. That made the thrill of the medal ceremony all the more sweet. “We went down prepared to win, and I think we did a pretty good job,” Lenz said.
They may not have had a celebratory welcome when they returned home, but they’ll remember the moment they stepped onto the podium and into the limelight. As the music played and the crowd cheered, each member received a bronze medal.
They’re not resting on their laurels. They have their eyes fixed on the 2011 games in Houston, and they hope that many more women will join them.
Schuster said it doesn’t matter how many years have passed since a player has picked up a bat. Softball is like riding a bicycle – you never forget how.
“The more you play, the better you get,” Sullivan added. For her, the game is therapeutic. She has Parkinson’s disease. “The more active I am, the better off I am,” she said. “This keeps my brain and body moving.”
Darlene Lenz understands some people think it’s unusual to see a 75-year-old on first base. So she’s developed a response. “When they say, ‘Are you still playing?’ I say, ‘I never quit!’ ”