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Good things come in threes: Japanese softball legend Eri Yamada eyes third medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Good things come in threes: Japanese softball legend Eri Yamada eyes third medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics
06/08/2020
An interview with Eri Yamada, who won bronze at Athens 2004 and gold at Beijing 2008, aims to win her third Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020. The two-time WBSC Women’s Softball World Champion talks about her Olympic experience and the expectations on Tokyo 2020.

Eri Yamada is one of the most recognizable faces on the Japanese National Softball Team. With more than 16 years of international experience, she has become one of the most decorated players in the country’s history, with two Olympic medals and two WBSC World Championships. At 36, she’s still the everyday centerfielder and captain of the Japanese squad, aiming to win the Olympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020.

Born on 8 March 1984, in Hiratsuka, Japan, Yamada has already played in 19 Olympic softball games (all of them patrolling center field), winning a bronze medal in Athens 2004 and a gold medal in Beijing 2008. The outfielder has a solid .379 lifetime average in the Olympics with 2 home runs and 10 RBI. She will try to improve upon these impressive numbers in 2021 when she will participate in her third Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.

Yamada made her Olympic debut in the Athens 2004 Games, as a 20 year-old player, being the second youngest member of the Japanese squad. However, she started all nine games and was the most productive hitter in the team, leading Japan in average (.414), hits (12), triples (2), RBI (5), on base (.438), stolen bases (2) and slugging (.586).

“Since I watched the Sydney 2000 Olympics on TV, I had wanted to stand on the same stage. As my dream came true in Athens 2004, I decided to show good results in the tournament. Our goal was to win a gold medal, so it was regrettable that we ended with a bronze medal,” said Yamada, who answered WBSC’s questions through the Japanese Softball Association.

On 22 August 2004, Japan played a pair of tight games to finish their participation in Athens 2004. They opened the playoffs beating China 1-0 in 8 innings, and then lost to Australia 3-0, leaving Japan in third place. She went 3-for-7 that day. Asked about those games, Yamada doesn’t remember the details, but she recalls the stress of the situation, and how it affected the performance of the team.

“Now I don’t remember much about it, but we felt the pressure of aiming for the gold medal and we as a team were unable to show our true strength during the games. The result may have been different if we could have played as usual.”

A year after Athens 2004, the IOC decided that softball would be out of the 2012 Olympic programme. “I was disappointed because I was planning to end my career as a player after participating in London 2012.

“I’ve had the opportunity to participate in two Olympics, but I have seen many players retire because softball was dropped from the Olympics. I wanted many players to play in the Olympic stage. In my case, the IOC decision has pushed me to stay on the field to thank softball and everyone around.”

Yamada was one of six players from the Athens 2004 roster to repeat in Beijing 2008, including pitching legend Yukiko Ueno. Both players entered the 2008 Olympic Games in their prime, aiming to dethrone USA and win the first softball gold medal in Japan’s history. After a 6-1 record in the opening round, Japan headed to the playoffs as second-place finisher, facing USA in the first semi-final. A 4-1 loss sent Japan to play the second semi final against Australia, later that same day. The game turned into a 12-inning marathon that was ultimately won by Japan, 4-3.

“We wanted to finish the game and have Yukiko [Ueno] rested soon. But meanwhile, we were happy that we could play the game longer.”

After an exhausting day, on 21 August 2008, Japan played the second Olympic final in their history.

“We did the same routine, nothing changed for that day,” recalls Yamada, Japan’s No. 3 hitter for that game. 

Lefty Cat Osterman was the starter for USA, carrying a 0.00 ERA for the tournament. However, the Asian team took a 1-0 lead in the third inning, and one inning later, Yamada, belted a leadoff home run to center field to give her team a 2-0 lead, en route to a historic 3-1 victory..

“It had been difficult for me to hit against Osterman, so I was glad and surprised to get a home run which was a key for Japan to win the game,” recognizes the left handed hitter, who hit .345 and was Japan’s best hitter in Beijing.

Ueno pitched the complete game and Japan clinched the gold medal for the first time in history: “I remember many fans exploded with joy as Japan won the gold medal,” said Yamada.

With softball out of the Olympics from London 2012, Beijing 2008 appeared as the last chance for a generation of players to perform at the pinnacle event. But not for Yamada, who has built a long-lasting and exceptional career.

A two-time world champion in 2012 and 2014, Yamada has participated in six WBSC Women’s Softball World Championships. In 2018, Japan hosted the WBSC flagship event in Chiba, suffering a tough, extra-inning loss in the final against arch-rivals USA. However, it was a great learning experience for Yamada and the Japanese national team ahead of Tokyo 2020.

“We learned how to play in the atmosphere and pressure of playing an important tournament like this at home soil. We also learned how to play against the US national team.”

After 12 years of waiting, softball would have made its return this year at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Yamada to wait a bit longer for the opportunity to grab her third Olympic medal.

“I do my best to prepare for the Games until we are allowed to play softball. I wanted to show my gratitude to everyone in Tokyo 2020, so I was glad to hear it was postponed, and not cancelled. I keep training to be ready for every possibility.”


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