Watching the Atlanta ’96 action as a 14-year-old, Yukiko Ueno knew she wanted to be an Olympian.
Eight years after setting her target, she pitched an historic perfect game in Athens as Japan claimed the bronze. Ueno followed that up with gold in Beijing in 2008, throwing an astonishing 413 pitches in three games over two days to earn national hero status as Japan beat the US.
And here she was again, still rocket-armed and iron-willed at the age of 39, propelled by a sense of duty.
There were setbacks: the torn knee muscle in 2016. The fractured jaw bone sustained when she was hit by a ball in 2019. The dimming of desire. “I’m still trying to achieve good results, but I don’t have the same fire as I did in 2008,” she told reporters ahead of this tournament. “However, I cannot stop playing because I feel that the team needs me.”
She reignited when it mattered most. The US, which beat Japan 2-1 in the group stage a day earlier, had no answer to Ueno, who made her international debut when the Millennium Bug was still a thing. The Americans mustered a solitary hit off Ueno through five innings. She was then replaced when Michelle Moultrie singled in the sixth.
But the night had not seen the last of Ueno, who re-entered for the seventh inning to close out what she had started, still hurling pitches – 89 in all, with five strikeouts – at more than 65mph. Three batters up, three down. Game over.
The US had an age-defying veteran ace of their own, Cat Osterman, who won gold in Athens and retired in 2015, only to be lured back. The left-handed Texan did not give up a run in this tournament but was replaced after allowing a lead-off walk in the third inning.
Given the number of runners reaching base, it was not a huge surprise when Japan manufactured a couple of runs, taking the lead in the fourth inning and making it 2-0 in the fifth after profiting from a wild pitch from Team USA’s other star pitcher, Monica Abbott, 35, a silver medallist in Beijing. With the way Ueno pitched, a two-run advantage always looked likely to be enough in a contest notable for some fine defensive plays from both sides.
This was a clash of the world’s top two teams, the only nations to have claimed Olympic gold and the sole countries to have won the world championships since New Zealand in 1982.
It was held on a modified baseball field at a 35,000-capacity stadium a 45-minute drive from downtown Tokyo, its sinuous stands curved like a steep blue dish and their echoing emptiness imparting a sense of loss despite the chants and cheers of the American squad and the blaring music. There are some melancholies that not even a Japanese cover version of YMCA can spirit away.
Adding to the tension of a gold medal match between great rivals was the sense of finality imparted by softball’s ever-tenuous Olympic status. There’s always next time? Maybe not.
When removed from the programme ahead of 2012, baseball and softball became the first Olympic sports to be axed since polo in 1936. Softball was introduced in Atlanta ’96 and chopped from London 2012 and Rio 2016. It returned this year thanks to its popularity in the host country but is off the menu again in 2024. Only, surely, to make its Hollywood comeback in Los Angeles in 2028, when Dodger Stadium promises to provide an alluring backdrop.
In 2019 the US and Japan even announced plans to send coaches to France on a high-stakes outreach mission to improve the quality of the 2024 host’s teams on the off-chance that apathetic Parisians might be persuaded to swoon for baseball and softball. In truth they will probably be too busy breakdancing. Or fantasising about the surfing, which will be in Tahiti.
See you in seven years. It’s an age away, but they’ll still be talking fondly about Ueno’s performance here.