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Haylie McCleney knew the deal for her Olympic dreams well before she started training for the Tokyo Games.

Softball was dropped after the 2008 Olympics, but it will return for the 2020 Olympics in Japan, a softball haven that happily added the sport back. There won’t be softball at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. It could return in 2028, when the Summer Games will be held in Los Angeles, another mecca of softball.

McCleney is 26. Softball in seven years is a possibility, but she and her team have clear goals in Tokyo.

“It's just gold or bust. I think most people expect us to win gold, and if we don't win gold that'll be a disappointment. And we all know that,” McCleney said. “But we still continue to play with a chip on our shoulder to prove all of our doubters wrong, even if we're making up doubters in our head.”

The United States has ruled the diamond, winning four of the five Olympic gold medals awarded in addition to the last two Softball World Cups. The team the U.S. beat in those World Cups? Japan. The home team will also have an advantage if fans are allowed to attend any of the games because there will likely be locals cheering on Japan. If Team USA wins gold, they will have to wait to celebrate with their loved ones until they go home.

“For a lot of our team, this is our one and only shot to play in the Olympics, and it's gut-wrenching that our families aren't going to be able to be there physically and share with us in those moments,” McCleney said. “But at the end of the day, the silver lining is that we still get to play at this point. There was a lot of questions on if that would actually even happen, so I think you just got to take it with a grain of salt.”

Beyond Tokyo, McCleney is looking forward to getting married, as her wedding with fiancee Kylee Hanson was postponed due to COVID-19. She will also play another season for Athletes Unlimited, a new softball league that held its first season in the summer of 2020. The league emphasizes athlete empowerment and keeps standings both for individual players and teams. Every game was televised, and the ratings were promising.

“It was a tough, difficult concept for me to honestly get behind. When I first heard about it I was like, ‘What? Individual points? I don't like that,’” McCleney said. “It kind of sounded weird to me, but once I committed to it and once I was able to play that first full season, I really just bought into the whole idea of the league being one whole group of 60 women. We were all on one team, which is essentially what they made the experience feel like.”

For softball to get a more permanent spot at the Olympics, the sport needs to grow. McCleney said that part of the appeal of Athletes Unlimited is that kids can watch games and have players to look up to.

“I was born in 1994, so I started to play softball around the year 2000, '99/2000, and there were no professional softball players that I knew of to be like, ‘Oh, I want to be like XYZ.’ I didn't have that,” McCleney said. “I wanted to be like Ken Griffey, Jr. I wanted to be like Barry Bonds. Those were my idols and my role models. I'm not saying that young girls can't have Major League Baseball role models at this point, but I think there's a lot more options.”

“Girls now are looking up to the Monica Abbotts, the Cat Ostermans, the Rachel Garcias, the Deja Mulipolas,” she added. “Being able to have that visibility is huge because I, of course, wanted to play professional sports growing up, but I didn't really think that was a possibility for me until the game grew and took off like it did. Now little girls can have that dream. They can see us living that out and I think it's going to continue to make more young women involved in our sport, and that's what's going to grow the game even more on a global scale.”

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