Jennifer Salling is hoping her delayed Olympic reprise will become an Olympic medal realized.
The 33-year-old Port Coquitlam native is in Marion, Ill., until late June, training with her Canada’s national softball teammates as they prepare to head to Tokyo as one of six teams competing at the Summer Olympics.
The culmination of Salling’s lifelong journey in the sport has been a long time coming.
Not only is softball returning to the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008, when she was part of the Canadian team that finished fourth, the event itself was delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic that circled the globe through 2020 and even now will prevent foreign spectators from attending.
Salling, who was toted to her dad’s fastpitch games when she was an infant then picked up a ball and glove herself when she joined PoCo Minor Softball at the age of five, said she’s been putting the extra time to good use.
While Salling was the youngest player on the 2008 side that competed in Beijing, she’s now one of its four veteran Olympians, and one of 12 players who’ve been on Canada’s national team for five years or more.
Along the way, she earned a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington – as well as a Master’s in education and intercollegiate athletic leadership – competed at five women’s softball world championships and won three silver medals and a gold at four Pan American Games.
She’s also switched her position from shortstop to first base.
Four years ago, after Salling completed her education, she made the decision to dedicate herself full-time to being a part of softball’s return to the Summer Olympics.
She split her time between the Lower Mainland and Oviedo, Fla., where she could work with a hitting instructor at a dedicated indoor facility.
When the pandemic shut the Canada-U.S. border in March, 2020, Salling stayed in Florida to continue working on her game in anticipation of the public health emergency blowing over by the time the Tokyo games were scheduled to begin in late July.
Of course, it didn’t, and the Olympics were postponed a year.
For months, the members of Canada’s national team were scattered across North America, working out on their own with no idea whether their commitment would have a pay off.
“We didn’t know what was going on, what the plan was, whether we could execute it,” Salling said.
Through to last January, the team stayed connected through online meetings and Slack channels. A mental performance coach tasked players to visualize each of the first four opponents they’ll face in Tokyo for a week at a time. Other assignments also had to be fulfilled.
Salling said the ongoing challenge of staying motivated and keeping their eyes on the prize should serve the team well in Japan.
“How we’ve responded to the adversity, shown up to be better softball players, has made us so much stronger and closer,” she said.
For Salling, the stakes are especially high. She’ll be 34 when the Games open July 23.
And with softball not on the list of sports that will be contested at the 2024 Paris Olympics, this is likely her last chance for her sport’s ultimate prize.
That finality drives Salling as she works out in the gym and practises on the diamond six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with meetings often scheduled for the evenings.
“You have a job to do, you have responsibilities,” she said.
“I have another opportunity to write a different story for myself, and for our country. It’s so cool to be a part of that.”