Haylie McCleney proudly stuck out her left forearm to show the new addition. The bright colors of the Olympic rings stood out, the tattoo still slightly raised on her arm. Like so many Olympians, McCleney went straight to the tattoo parlor after returning home from the Tokyo Games. She wanted the rings in a spot she could see and serve as a constant reminder of what she and her softball teammates accomplished in Japan.
The Olympics changed her.
“I think there's just a more sense of gratitude. And really just proud of how far I've come, how far my teammates have come, going through that journey of being on the Olympic rollercoaster for two years when it should have been one,” McCleney told Bally Sports. “I know we didn't come home with the medal we exactly wanted, in the first place, but our journey was incredible and we grew so much. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.”
The first few months after the Olympics can be a thrilling time for the competitors coming home, but it can also be a difficult time. Athletes who are used to a structured schedule with clear, defined goals find themselves without much to do. Olympic gold medalists — including Michael Phelps, Kayla Harrison and Allison Schmitt — have talked about the danger of those ensuing months after the Olympics and how it can affect mental health.
Like many of her silver medal-winning Olympic teammates, McCleney is playing for Athletes Unlimited, a new softball league in its second season. She has found that, even though continuing to play softball as her body screams for a break is tough, the games are exactly what she needs mentally.
“I think the beauty of having this experience so quickly after is, yes, our bodies are really tired,” McCleney said, “but for us to be able to be around other Olympians, we're all going through it. And we've all been really vulnerable here in talking about it, to where we basically just have to come to terms with it's not going to be the Olympics. It's over, we have to process and we have to lean on each other to move on.”
The Athletes Unlimited games take place in suburban Chicago on the weekends. It gives players time in between to talk about the Olympic experience and what’s next. Softball had not been on the Olympic program since the 2008 Beijing Games, and the sport isn’t on the program for 2024 in Paris.
“There's been a lot of unpacking, I think, for a lot of different teams just coming off of that experience," McCleney said. "Because everything in our lives is centered around get to the Olympics, the Olympics, the Olympics, the Olympics, even since I was on the national team in 2014, we were talking about (it). So for it to be over, it's just you have to take a step back, appreciate what you did and then set new goals moving forward.
"What do you want your life to look like?"
For now, it’s Athletes Unlimited. The league has 60 players who are all ranked according to a point system that rewards both individual and team performances. For example, McCleney’s team lost on Saturday but won individual innings, so she still walked away with points. Her Olympic teammate, Dejah Mulipola, had two home runs, so she earned 80 points in that game.
Each week, the teams are redrafted, with the four highest-ranked players serving as the four team captains. The teams have started to come up with nicknames and themes. McCleney’s team, which wore orange uniforms, called itself “Hoopers” and wore basketball shoes and Toon Squad jerseys. When Ali Aguilar hit a home run, she was met by her teammates holding a small hoop. McCleney handed her a basketball, and Aguilar slammed it.
“This game is just fun," McCleney said. "With the Olympics, there's so much pressure to perform. And you know going in, this is the biggest moment of your life, and nothing's ever going to surpass that. So for us to be able to just be here, create a fun environment — and the staff here does an amazing job with creating that for us — it's been fun. We have made softball fun again for a lot of us, and it's cool. It's making us fall in love with the game, I think, even more coming off of that Olympic experience.
"So yeah, it's been a very big blessing when you're tired. You're tired and our bodies are hurting, but we needed this to be fun and free.”